Note: This post has been updated to reflect Squarespace’s new member areas feature. Read more about this here.
Membership or subscription based websites are a more and more popular request I’m hearing from potential clients. I’m not talking about the physical subscription boxes, but rather, memberships that allow access to specific content on your website that’s behind a gated paywall.
Perhaps you provide video instruction or PDF downloads or templates to your customers. Or host trainings on a monthly basis available to you subscribers only.
First things first, I want to share a hard truth:
Membership-based businesses are HARD.
Thanks to the rise of the online coaching industry, there is a bit of a perception that you can just throw together a membership program and make it rain.
But the content has to be useful and something folks will pay for over and over again. There are loads of possibilities and these can be nice recurring revenue streams, when they’re marketing and promoted correctly to your target audience. But it’s not easy and don’t believe anyone who says it is. Trust me, we launched our membership program in 2020 and it has been a huge learning curve, despite our planning and prep! (Note: Our membership closed in 2022. If you’d like to learn the pros and cons of starting, running, and ultimately closing a membership, you can always reach out.)
Squarespace Membership Sites
Squarespace Member Areas (new Nov 2020) – This is an option for a simple client library or other basic gated content. Read our detailed evaluation of this new feature here.
MemberSpace – While I’m sure some folks disagree, I think MemberSpace continues to stand out as a very reasonable third-party tool. I know there are hacks, like password protected pages, and cheaper options like Sentry Login, but password protected pages are even more susceptible to password sharing AND the annoyance of people not being able to access their lost passwords themselves, while it takes very little technical skill to bypass Sentry Login and similar tools (some ad blockers do it too). MemberSpace is actually bypassable too, but they have a content container that does protect your actual media like PDFs and videos, so that’s less of a concern, assuming you set up your account correctly. Keep in mind, however, that your customers will have to have multiple sign ons, if you run commerce on Squarespace in addition to memberships—there’s no full-blown integrated login possibility with Squarespace and MemberSpace.
MemberStack – This is a newer player in the Squarespace membership space, and has a comparable product to MemberSpace. While I still recommend MemberSpace more (because I am familiar with their development team—MemberStack’s seems great, I just don’t personally know them), people are enjoying the similarly simple setup and I think it’s worth taking both systems through their paces to see which one clicks with you the most.
An exception: I have a number of clients who don’t actually need formal memberships, so to speak. They need certain made not particularly accessible to the public, but easy enough for their stakeholders to grab when they need it, such as calendars, board minutes, and resources. This isn’t hiding premium, paid content behind a wall. Instead, it’s simply information that the public doesn’t need. (Though with that said, be careful what you upload to your website–directories and such should be handled cautiously if they contain people’s phone numbers, addresses and other sensitive information. Doxing is a real problem and you, as a website owner, don’t want to be inadvertently the cause of some serious harm.)
WordPress Membership Sites
If you own a WordPress (.org) site, you have loads of options for directly integrating memberships into your site. LOADS. And you’ll really need to decide the balance of ease of use, features and flexibility that makes sense for your specific project. MemberPress is super popular for a reason, particularly that it comes with a slew of integrations that make it an all-in-one solution.
Update 5/2020: We recently evaluated AccessAlly and if we were to move to a WordPress solution for our membership, this would be the ticket! Yes, it’s expensive, but you need to compare it to something like if Thinkific’s enterprise solution was massively customizable, not LearnDash or MemberPress. It’s got all the things that lots of plugins would have to handle built into it, so while it would still be a bit more expensive than most WordPress setups, it’s simplified and the member experience is phenomenal (I discovered it as a member of a program and looked at the underlying code to figure out what awesome thing was behind the setup). It’s definitely one to check out if you’re considering a WordPress-based solution.
If your focus is on selling courses via your WordPress site, and you want your content to live on your site, then LearnDash is probably worth a look as well. Another popular course option is LifterLMS.
The long and short story with WordPress membership sites is that you need to focus on your priorities and find the tool that best meshes with those priorities and implement it properly. Think of your site from the inside out. Desired result first, then the tool that will get you there (this can be said for any membership tool).
Standalone Platforms for Membership Websites
Like with WordPress, the standalone platforms vary wildly and you have many choices. These are all SaaS (software as a service) options, which means they would not live directly on your website, instead they’d be available via a styled third party site with domains “mapped” (think white labeling) to that third party tool. Why would you want this? Well, ease of use if you’re starting out or DIYing, or if you’re trying out memberships but aren’t ready to invest heavily in that as a core piece of your business. (When I launch my online classes, I’ll use a SaaS solution because it will be an “extra,” not a core piece of my business and I want to be as hands off as possible.)
Podia – I have to say, I’m incredibly impressed with this platform. I have taken it for a spin and think that it combines value and ease of use on the customer end in a way that the others I’ve mentioned here can’t beat. Memberships are available at their “Shaker” tier of service and they allow for courses, downloads and memberships. You can’t design your sales pages to the level that you can with the others I will mention, so that’s something to keep in mind as well–if you’re incredibly brand sensitive, you may find yourself a bit limited by their platform (though I think you’ll find yourself limited by any SaaS solution).
Thinkific – I have a few clients who’ve used Thinkific and been very happy with it. It does offer single sign-on, which can be nice if you own a WordPress site and want to integrate sales on both properties. Thinkific recently redesigned their pricing tiers, including a free tier, and as a result I recommend them in addition to Podia, which is my favorite for low-tech course creators.
Teachable – If you’ve taken an online course from a on online business, there’s a good chance you’ve used Teachable. You can create content bundles easily, which is great. Where I feel Teachable falters is with the pricing. They take a big cut of your revenue at the lowest tiers, so keep that in mind when you’re evaluating your options. I also do not love their user experience as a student, there are always a few too many links, and with their pricing, I want a better interface.
There are other standalone platforms that you can also explore (Kajabi is super popular, for example, if you’re a coach), so do take platforms that intrigue for a test drive.
So where does that leave us? Do I have a definitive answer as to the best software for hosting a membership website?
Every case is unique and, like with website platforms, you have to weigh the benefits, costs, features and your own comfort level when evaluating your options. If you’re a Squarespace user, your choices are simple: use a tool like Member Areas, Memberspace or use a SaaS solution like Podia.
With WordPress, you’re going to need to take a hard look at your customers’ journey through your site and how you want them interacting with their accounts. Get out an actual piece of paper and map out your content and how your customers will interact with it. You’ll start to see your priorities emerge and the decision path will become easier for you. (Also, this is something we can cover in a strategy session, if you’re looking for some no strings professional advice.)
Update: Please read our July 2019 post, “Should you start a membership website” for more on this topic.
Disclaimer: Some links are affiliates links, but we only link to tools and software we authentically recommend.