The challenges of building a WordPress membership site

Building a WordPress membership site is easier than ever. Why? There are a wealth of membership plugins for WordPress to handle the features your organization or client needs in an all-in-one package. The real challenge as a project manager or developer is to initially pick the right membership software to meet your functionality requirements. Careful research will help you ensure you have selected a solid plugin that meets needs and avoids rework.

What type of membership website are you building?

There are two primary types of membership plugins — those for organizations and those for content creators. Your research should be informed by what type of membership site you are building:

A website for a content generator who seeks to primarily profit from restricting access to valuable content. Examples include coaches, bloggers, subject matter experts and those with educational content. Unique requirements in this category include:

  • The ability to drip content,
  • Online course sales and delivery, and
  • Digital download sales.

A website for an organization such as a chamber of commerce, nonprofit, society, trade association, club or professional group. If your organization plans on registering as a non-profit with the government, that typically would put them in this first category. Some differentiating requirements for a site in this category might include a membership directory and an invoicing feature.

While some plugins offer features in both categories, each plugin is often stronger at serving one type of customer versus another. Your feature list will vary according to your type of site, but the core functionality of both types of plugins will consistently have the requirements below. 

1. Sell memberships at various levels, pricing intervals, and payment options

Challenge:
Membership tracking and billing are complicated. Asking a lot of questions about how the organization or content creator currently collects dues will help you understand their needs so that you may guide them to the right solution. Some member billing requirements may include:

  • Offering fixed renewal dates or rolling renewals. This depends upon how the organization is currently billing its members. Rolling renewals will always maximize revenue, but some organizations insist on maintaining their older practices.
  • Enabling members to log in to edit their profile information (perhaps for a member directory) and credit card numbers. 
  • Allowing payment options such as offline payments, one-time credit card, and auto-recurring card payments. Check payments may be especially important to well-established organizations with older members who may not be as trusting of online transactions. While it is more efficient to only accept credit cards, it can be a customer service nightmare for organizations to suddenly stop offering check payments.
  • Accommodating multiple membership levels at billing intervals and prices that may need to be edited in the future.
  • Ability to comply with GDPR (for organizations doing business in the European Union or its residents) and emerging privacy laws.
  • The ability to create custom fields.

Solution:

Build a WordPress membership site with a membership plugin such as MembershipWorks. Connect the plugin to a payment gateway or processor like Authorize.net, PayPal Pro or Stripe that accommodates both one-time and auto-recurring payments. Note that MembershipWorks is ideal for organizations; coaches and content generators may want to look for a plugin that offers features such as drip content – such as LearnDash, s2Member or Memberpress

2. Communicate with members

Your membership site will need to be able to send out event announcements, promotions, newsletters and more by email and possibly other methods.

Challenge:

If you are dealing with an established group, chances are that they already have a way of emailing members. Perhaps they are able to send emails through their existing membership software or an email marketing system like MailChimp or Constant Contact. You’ll need to either need to export these subscribers into your new WordPress membership plugin or you’ll need to find a plugin that integrates with your current email marketing platform. 

Solution:

Look for a membership plugin that integrates with a widely-used email marketing platform like MailChimp. All membership software will include functionality to send out past due reminders and receipts, but no plugin will be able to match the robustness of a popular email system with a wide user base like MailChimp. Email marketing providers regularly upgrade their features. Maintaining a separate email platform from WordPress and your membership management software allows you to have more flexibility in the future if you decide to change content management systems or membership plugins. You’ll be able to have a more seamless transition because:

  • Past messages, subscriber data, statistics and reports will be kept.
  • You’ll continue to be able to use any email templates you created.
  • Reducing the amount of new technology to learn is helpful to staff.

3. Provide members only content

Challenge:
A trade association may want its research report restricted to members only. A networking group may want to have some documents hidden from everyone except board members. Some organizations will want to restrict content by membership level. For example, a career coach may have bonus content that only the highest level of members can access. Or perhaps only certain premium members are allowed to offer deals or coupons in the member directory.

Solution:

Install a membership plugin to restrict content. A plugin could accomplish content restriction by providing a shortcode to drop onto member only pages. If you are working with an organization with higher security requirements for their content, you may want to ask questions of prospective plugins on that topic to be sure you’re covered.

4. Offer forms, a membership directory, event calendar, shopping carts

Challenge

Example: A chamber has a calendar plugin where members can post events, but the staff has to manually check to see if each submission is from a member before approving the event.

Example: A networking group wants to sell tickets to its monthly meeting, but members should pay less than other attendees. They will need their event registration plugin to verify membership.

Example: A coach wants to sell advanced training to her clients, but only those who have already purchased another product are eligible to purchase it. 

Solution

While you can find separate WordPress plugins to handle each of these functions, a robust membership plugin will handle these challenges in a much more elegant and efficient way than a stand-alone event, directory or shopping cart plugins can. A member’s activity in registering for an event, making a purchase or filling out a form can be tied to their record in the member database. Many organizations and content creators appreciate this type of member database that offers CRM features.

5. Enable reporting

Nonprofit membership organizations have obligations to report membership activity such as new member acquisition and finances to their board of directors. Savvy coaches and bloggers will want to track membership numbers to see how their business is doing.

Challenge

Nonprofits need to present a unified report to their board. In the search for maximum features or the perfect plugin, don’t be tempted to install separate plugins for member billing, event registration, member directory, or shopping cart. Then the person pulling the report will have to manually have to pull data from various plugins. 

Solution
Look for a membership plugin with the must-have features you need. Consider what software the organization already uses; see if the membership plugin can integrate with them. The organization will be more likely to successfully transition member databases when they can continue to use related software they are already familiar with.

6. Provide ongoing support

Challenge

Am I correct in assuming that the last thing developers like to deal with are questions related to a project built long ago? Organizations don’t necessarily want to pay for the endless support. Some nonprofits can barely afford a membership site in the first place. 

Solution

A good membership plugin will offer support. While most free WordPress plugins rarely offer good support, the highest quality and most robust plugins are ones that charge an initial or ongoing fee. With an ongoing fee, you or your client will be able to access ongoing support. 

Do your research; use a spreadsheet to document how each plugin aligns with the project needs; include a column for support and other possible fees. Important considerations:

  • Is there a setup fee to get started?
  • Is training offered, and is it one-time or unlimited? Is it in a group setting or is it one-on-one?
  • What types of support are offered? Some content creators and organizations will need phone support while others will prefer email.
  • Does support come at a cost?

Have you come across other challenges in creating a WordPress membership site? Speak up the comments; we’d love to hear from you.

Published by

Amy Hufford

Amy Hufford is a Technologist at MembershipWorks. She has worked in nonprofit technology for more than 20 years and has experience with a variety of donor and membership software platforms.

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