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Choosing the right membership management software for your site

Learn why it's crucial to consider features such as integrations, scalability, ease of use, and more when choosing membership website software.

January 4, 2019 by Lauren Cochran

Searching for the right gym and the right membership software have a lot in common.

It has to be convenient. (Otherwise, why would you go out of your way?)

It has to be supportive. (Pushy sales people and trainers need not apply.)

It needs to be secure. (You’re going to be using it to conduct sensitive business. If you can’t trust the parking lot or servers responsible for transmitting your customers’ data, you’ve got a dealbreaker.)

And, above all else, it has to be a price point that you can actually afford to sustain.

Fortunately, there are a few differences between finding a new spot for leg day and choosing the best platform to sell memberships on, too.

Chiefly, that you’ve got a lot more options, you can skip the small talks and contracts, and if you choose well, you’ll land a source of recurring revenue that can free you from the cubicle farm.

Thus, to help you make the best choice for your business, we’ve compiled a list of the top-rated membership software suites. Before we talk about what we found, however, we should talk about what we were looking for.

What to look for in membership software

While you’re probably familiar with what a membership program should look like from the members’ side, the picture can be surprisingly different from the business angle.

And it’s an important angle to consider because while the customer should always come first, you have to protect yourself at the same time.

After all, only 67.8% of small businesses survive past their first birthday, and the mortality rate is highest for businesses with less than four employees.

We covered some of the metrics that businesses should consider in the introduction, but they go a little deeper than that. When you’re looking for the perfect solution, you should be paying attention to these membership platform features:

  • Integrations. Does it work with other programs and services you need to use to manage your business? How about marketing? Not having the right integrations may not break a membership program, but it definitely doesn’t make it better, either.
  • Ease of use. Some people like learning new software and figuring out complicated processes. But most of us don’t have the time to do that, even if we do enjoy it.
  • Support. Your business is on the line. Is customer support on that line with you? They should be.
  • Scalability. Businesses change sizes. Your membership software should do that with you without charging a small country.
  • Marketing. Does it help you promote your business and give you the tools you need to make more sales? Or do you have no choice but to pay another service for that?
  • Price. This one is pretty self-explanatory. If you can’t afford it, you can’t fund your business.

Some of these, like marketing, may seem superfluous, but consider this: 47% of small businesses rate it as their top growth strategy.

Add that with the fact that manual tasks eat up 23% of the same business owner’s day, and any tool that isn’t as multifaceted and automated as possible is a tool that’s holding your bottom line back.

Becky Mollenkamp, a business owner who’s generating $10,000 annually in her memberships, corroborates this unfortunate time sink when talking about her day-to-day:

“So my days, when I'm actually in front of my computer, are spent creating content, managing my membership community, being highly involved in their administrative stuff that I don't always love to do, managing my VA or my team. So it's kind of, you know, all over the map.”

Does anyone actually enjoy administration?

(Probably. Not me, though.)

So with that out of the way, here’s how your options stack up.

Podia

Becky, the small business owner mentioned above, switched from a Podia competitor -- Thinkific -- and has been one of the biggest advocates ever since.

Why does she love Podia so much?

Here are some of the major pros of Podia:

  • A flat monthly fee. It never changes. That makes budgeting a cinch.
  • Multiple features all packed into one. You can sell online courses, digital downloads, and memberships from the same dashboard.
  • A super easy-to-use editor that lets you create polished designs without a lick of code.
  • Easy-breezy to use for launching a membership website (no coding or technical skills required).

But, of course, nothing is perfect.

Here are some potential cons to using Podia for a membership site:

  • Design customization is somewhat limited on the storefronts, although always expanding. There are a lot of nice features, but if you want to dig into the code and hack it together yourself, you may have to come at it sideways.
  • Created for the creator. Any business can make it work, but the features are really geared towards the creative entrepreneur and not the corporate counterpart.

Now, let’s talk about how it lines up on features.

Podia features

Integrations: 4.0 out of 5. Podia integrates with tons of useful tools like Facebook Pixel, ConvertKit, Drip, and MailChimp (all of which make a fantastic starting block for a marketing stack). Plus, Podia integrates with endless third-party applications.

Ease of Use: 4.5 out of 5. Podia was designed for users who don’t have the time or want to get technical with their business, and it shows splendidly.

Support: 5.0 out of 5. There’s no feature that the testimonials and case studies tout more highly than Podia’s support team, and with live chat, it’s easy to see why.

Scalability: 4.0 out of 5. You only get one option if you want to run a membership -- the “Shaker” plan -- which costs this platform a point. On the flipside, your monthly fee for it doesn’t put any limits on your growth, which is an unusual feature for membership software.

Marketing: 3.0 out of 5. Email marketing and drip campaign tools are included, which is a definite plus, but the features aren’t nearly as robust as what you’d get with a free MailChimp account. Fortunately, they integrate.

Price: $39-$79.00 a month.

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Additionally, as a fully self-contained platform, you also get to skip security concerns and server administration. Podia may not be well-suited for users who prefer a more corporate environment, but for the creative, it’s perfect.

Next up is another platform that offers a lot of features in one package.

WildApricot

Rated as one of the most popular options for membership software, WildApricot is more versatile than Podia in that it’s designed for both offline and online communities.

It’s particularly exalted among nonprofit organizations, so if you’re running a charity, this may be the better choice for you.

Here are the major pros going in WildApricot’s favor:

  • They have a free tier (naturally, with exclusions) for up to 50 members.
  • Unlimited admins make it easy to share administrative duties with someone else.
  • 11 free themes are offered to get your membership website up and running as quickly as possible -- but you can still customize them with CSS/HTML, if so inclined.

Some of the cons include:

  • A pretty outdated user interface. It’s functional, but it’s plain, which detracts from the overall experience if you’ve got a preference for eye-candy.
  • Pricing tiers are set up according to how many members you have. The more your business grows, the harder the bite on your monthly revenue.

WildApricot features

Integrations: 2.0 out of 5.0. WildApricot integrates with WordPress, which by default means anything that works on WordPress will work with WildApricot, too, but has very few native integrations.

Ease of Use: 3.0 out of 5.0. The backend of WildApricot isn’t as intuitive as some other programs, but customers are generally satisfied with its features. An updated user interface and more streamlined navigation would definitely help improve this score.

Support: 2.5 out of 5.0. Support hours are limited, and billing inquiries can only be addressed by email.

Scalability: 2.0 out of 5.0. Having a free tier helps, but the pricing structure based on the number of members can easily put a business owner in the red as they scale their business and try to juggle cash flow.

Marketing: 3.5 out of 5.0. Event registration, contact management -- i.e., email marketing -- and website building give this a membership software a strong showing for marketing.

Price: $40-$350 a month, depending on how many members you have.

While this may not be an ideal choice for online businesses, it’s definitely a strong one for groups that need to work offline as well as online.

AccessAlly

Boasting customers like The New York Times, AccessAlly is nothing if not gorgeous to look at from the front-end to the back-end (no pun intended).

Big pluses in AccessAlly’s corner:

  • Like Podia, AccessAlly is more than a membership platform. It’s also a fully featured learning management system and lets you sell online courses.
  • Tons of automated marketing features make it easy for someone to polish their promotion without a lot of experience.
  • Integrates with WordPress and provides built-in gamification features that can engage customers directly by rewarding them with credits.

The less-than-shining cons, however, may give you pause:

  • Pricing tiers offer single-site licenses, so if you want to run multiple membership programs, you’re going to have to pay more.
  • Availability is limited, which means you might have to compete for your spot. While that exclusivity gives it some appeal, it’s not great for a small business owner trying to find their land legs.

AccessAlly features

Integrations: 2.5 out of 5.0. AccessAlly links up with some pretty useful tools like Drip, ActiveCampaign, and InfusionSoft, but that’s about it for native integrations. Like WildApricot, you can integrate with WordPress.

Ease of Use: 4.5 out of 5.0. This suite is nothing if not pleasing to use and lets you instantly create jaw-dropping forms. If you’re comforting working in the back-end of WordPress, you’ll be comfortable here.

Support: 1.0 out of 5.0. With no support options outside of email and limited hours, this is the one area where AccessAlly really falls short. Live chat or phone would be a definite improvement.

Scalability: 3.5 out of 5.0. Because AccessAlly charges by features and not members, this can scale well with a growing business.

Marketing: 4.0 out of 5.0. Affiliate tracking, ecommerce management, cross-selling capabilities, and integrations with most of the major email marketing services is a definite feather in AccessAlly’s cap.

Price: $99-$5,000 a month, with each tier giving you more robust features than the last.

There’s a lot to love about AccessAlly, but limited support is a significant barrier to adoption for this program. Additionally, it’s geared specifically for education memberships, although it can be used with any type of website.

For our final review today, let’s look at the ultimate DIY solution.

WooMembers

WooCommerce is one of those things so ubiquitous with ecommerce that it’s often people’s first thought when they want to start an online business. While the base plugin is free, you’ll need two extensions -- bundled as “WooMembers” -- to run a paid subscription site.

Unlike the past three solutions for a membership website, WooMembers is your down-and-dirty, hack-it-yourself option.

And there are some benefits to it, too:

  • The control freak in your heart will smile at WooMembers. Because it’s purely a plugin and one that can integrate with just about any WordPress theme, your design options are nearly limitless.
  • One-time fees. This can be both a plus and a con since it requires you to spend more upfront for a less-than-certain business venture, but it also keeps your monthly revenue down. For the membership side of it, anyway.
  • Since it’s a WooCommerce extension, you have payment gateways galore. Customers can pay you however they want, and most of the major gateways are free to add.

The cons, on the other hand, are pretty severe:

  • This is far from user-friendly for anyone with a less-than-technical leaning. It’s definitely workable, but there’s a learning curve that could put off new business owners.
  • While it’s true that you’ll have less monthly payments with the membership side of things, using a plugin-only based approach can quickly accrue many other expenses.

Now, as before, let’s see how it ranks up for features, with the caveat that some of our metrics are more difficult to measure -- specifically integration -- because the WooMembers plugin doesn’t provide anything but the ability to charge a membership.

WooMembers features

Integrations: 3.5 out of 5.0. Compatibility with any WordPress theme is a major boon for WooCommerce. While it doesn’t technically integrate, there are a ton of extensions to give you additional functionality with your WooMembers package, albeit at a price.

Ease of Use: 2.5 out of 5.0. From a membership business perspective, WooCommerce can’t compete with the rest of this list -- it’s not designed to. The plugin itself is workable, but the additional challenge of managing the rest of your membership program puts more on your plate.

Support: 2.0 out of 5.0. Despite offering email as the only mode of contact, WooCommerce keeps some of its points because its support teams are across the world, so timezones aren’t as much of an issue.

Scalability: 5.0 out of 5.0. The same thing that cost WooCommerce ranks in ease of use is also what gives it full marks for scalability. You pay for your license, and the rest is up to you. Scale your membership program as you want, the sky is the limit.

Marketing: 2.0 out of 5.0. On the one hand, WooCommerce has pages upon pages of marketing extensions you can add to it. On the other hand, many of them come at a price. Drip, for instance, will cost you $79.00 to add to WooCommerce.

Price: $299.00 a year, but with the caveat that you can expect to pay more than that when stitching together your marketing tools.

Generally speaking, a plugin-based solution like this won’t work for most business owners if they aren’t willing to manage the twenty other pieces that would be covered with a platform set-up like Podia and WildApricot or a full suite like AccessAlly.

That said, if you’re fine with those drawbacks and value autonomy above all else, this might be the best option for you.

What your membership website needs

The right membership software can empower your business and fuel your dreams of a self-sustaining income. But the wrong one can leave you frustrated (at best) and in debt (at worst). Here’s where the cards fell during our review:

  • Podia is ideal for users who want to hit the ground running and not worry about the fine print. The flat monthly fee and support make it a strong solution for anyone new to, or just tired of, dealing with the administrative side of a business. Give it a free spin today.
  • WildApricot is best suited for membership programs that need to work across the digital divide and operate offline, particularly nonprofit organizations. Additionally, while WildApricot is affordable at the lowest tier, costs compound as you add more members.
  • AccessAlly is like a smooth coffee: pricy, enjoyable, and decked out in eye-candy. Unfortunately, your support avenues are bottlenecked, and that’s a big deal when it’s your income hanging in the wires.
  • WooMembers is the solution for someone who wants a total DIY approach. It’s great for anyone with more technical expertise and the time to devote to managing all the moving parts, but definitely not recommended if you’re looking to save time -- or money.

Ultimately, figuring out which features matter most to you as a business owner can’t be decided by a guide, but this should give you a good place to start. May the odds be ever in your favor!