You’ve done the rounds. You’ve narrowed in on your membership site idea, validated it with your audience, and now all that’s left to do is hit the ground running.
Except it’s not that simple.
You arrive at more questions than answers as you start thinking about data privacy, security, and every other daunting concern that comes with settling on membership software for your site.
But perhaps no question is more pressing than this one:
How much is it going to cost?
At baseline, you’re going to need a system for managing your members and distributing your products to them (a content management system), a domain name, and a website host.
That’s not even getting into the marketing services you need to start generating leads.
We know it’s a lot, which is why we’ve put together this article to supplement our membership guide.
Today, we’ll talk about the components you need for starting and managing a membership site, and most importantly, how pretty of a penny it will -- or won’t -- run you.
Let’s jump right in.
Short for content management system, a CMS is a suite of programs or tools that, when combined, help you manage the distribution and presentation of your content.
This popularity coincides with their ironclad grip on the market (60% of market share), though as you can see, almost half the internet doesn’t use a CMS at all.
Unless you’re a web developer or have one on staff, joining that crowd probably isn’t for you. What makes content management systems so popular is their ease of use. Often, you don’t need a coding background or technology know-how at all to get up and running.
So, assuming you’re in the 53% of the internet that needs a CMS, how much is it going to cost you?
For WordPress, nothing. You can install the CMS for free on a hosted domain, but if you want to set up a membership site, you’re going to have to fork some dough over for the plugins to run it.
If you’re using WooCommerce as your base, you’ll pay over $149.00 for the memberships plugin.
And, if you want your membership to come at a fee -- any fee -- you’ll need the subscriptions plugin to go alongside it.
All told, your cheapest entry point for a membership site with WordPress and WooCommerce is through a bundle deal that runs $300.00.
Ouch. That’s why -- among other reasons -- we don’t think WordPress is a good solution for selling digital products, though it is a great one for your website.
OK, but WordPress isn’t the only CMS. Let’s check out the second most popular option: Joomla!
For starters, you’re going to have to do some extra work in finding an appropriate host (more on that in a minute) that will let you use Joomla! -- it’s not nearly as widely supported as WordPress.
Then, like on WordPress, you’re going to have to spend extra money on the extensions to make a membership site work. The most popular plugin for this is significantly cheaper than WordPress at $39.99.
Not bad -- certainly better than our first example. But it’s not the only competitor.
Why? Because membership sites create a special set of hosting challenges -- we’ll dig into that in a moment -- and the basic package probably won’t cut it.
Which means, for an annual package, this CMS will cost you $480. That’s not even digging into any additional plugins you might need.
So, assuming you go with the overwhelmingly popular (and supported) option, the CMS and parts you’ll need to add to run a membership site will cost you $300.00. That’s before you consider domain names, marketing services, or website hosts.
Your CMS and website need a place to live: that’s where your website host comes into play.
But take heed at this stage of your price assessment. Many website hosts offer rock-bottom first year prices and then significantly raise their cost in the second year.
Who are the most popular website hosts these days? Finding an unbiased source for this is pretty tricky, but PCMag has us covered.
Before we look at the pricing for these, let’s talk about that hurdle I kept hinting about:
Keeping with the assumption that you’re using WordPress as a CMS since it was the most widely supported option, you’re going to need a performance grade hosting package or another plugin to make it work.
Because WordPress doesn’t use a cache by default.
If you’re not sure what a cache is, it’s basically like a fast food product. It’s rendered before users ever request it, so when they do, it’s served hot and ready -- no extra back and forth needed.
In slightly more technical terms, it’s a static page with all of the elements rendered on the server side. You’ve probably seen it on the Google SERP before.
Your host may provide caching services -- Kinsta, for instance, does -- but if you don’t have some kind of caching set up on a membership site, you’re going to run into some hard traffic jams as your numbers grow.
Because every time someone accesses a page, it’ll have to run off the server again, fresh-as-new.
And that’s not even the full picture of problems you can anticipate with a WordPress-based membership site -- other challenges include lack of user roles, very limited gating ability, and so much more.
But I digress. The point is this: if you’re running a membership site on WordPress, anticipate needing to bulk up your hosting package to circumvent the caching issue.
So, let’s take a look at those prices now. For this, we’ll be pulling the first and second-year prices and looking specifically at “cloud” plans where your website won’t be sharing server resources with others.
For two years on their business plan, HostGator will run $280.12, not including any extra features like security or data backup.
For the second most popular option, TMD Hosting, their business cloud hosting package will cost you $83.40 for the first year, then $167.40 for the second year (without promotional price).
This means your two-year price for this package will come to $250.80.
OK, one more. Let’s check out DreamHost. They don’t set up their cloud packages the same way as the last two, but the middle-ground option should set you up for everything you need for a membership website.
Assuming you get the maximum hits, you’ll run at about $288.00 for two years with this package.
None of these estimates include domain names. Depending on your package, your domain name may be free for the first year, total duration, or not at all with your package. We’ll evaluate the cost of a domain name in the next section.
Your total cost for a membership-ready host package, going with our middle-of-the-road option, is $280.12 for two years, or $140.06 for one year, promotions notwithstanding.
As I said, they may include a domain name in your package. If it is, you’ll want to check out the renewal price for it.
Important factors that change the price of your domain name include whether it was owned previously (i.e., you’re buying it off someone) and what top-level domain (TLD) it has.
The TLD is the extension or end of a URL.
And different TLDs have different price ranges although new TLDs are now available and gaining in popularity. “.com” is still the reigning ruler of the internet by a significant margin.
So it follows that it also comes with the highest price tag.
Though, as you can see, an invented domain name can still come pretty cheap with a .com TLD.
OK, before we check out the prices for invented .coms, we have to come up with some names to test out. I don’t know about you, but I love getting a little help with this.
Panabee is a super easy plug-and-play generator you can use to check out and generate new domain names.
Just drop in a word or two and hit “search” to see the availability and get suggestions based on your terms. Here’s what you get for “cats cradle.”
Another great one to take for a spin is Lean Domain Search.
Like Panabee, drop your terms into the box, click the magnifying glass, and check out the results. This generator works with more whole words than Panabee.
As a plus, Lean Domain Search also lets you know if the same domain name is available on Twitter.
Nice, right? I like this one, so let’s start searching domain registrars to get an idea of our price.
As of May 2017, these were the top domain registrars in the world:
Like our web hosting packages, we’re going to look at the two-year price range with the top registrars, so we get a more feasible idea for its total price without promotion.
Without any promotion, they come out to $27.90 for two years.
For those of you who like percentages, that’s a 2136.61% increase from one year to the next for a total of $65.98.
Opting for the most popular registrar, our two-year cost for a domain name with GoDaddy is $17.98, or $8.99 a year.
There’s just one more price we have to investigate for a membership site, and while it’s technically an optional one, it’s critical for business growth.
Marketing your products gets them into the hands of your customers, so although you can start a membership website without it, you can’t skip it if you want sustained growth.
Specifically, you need SEO. You can get pretty far with blogging and SEO to sell your products, but it’s never a bad idea to bring a professional onboard or get some automated help.
For a monthly SEO specialist on retainer, most charge between $500.01-$1,000.00.
Fortunately, a toolset like Moz (or even Ahrefs) is significantly cheaper than that and can give you everything you need to get off the ground with SEO.
Moz Pro’s standard plan will run you about $79.00 a month if you pay annually.
If that price made you double-take (understandably), you could always take it for a spin with a free trial first, then come back later once you’ve built up your business.
Another type of marketing you’ll want to have at hand is affiliate marketing. This enables your current members to sell more memberships on your behalf for a cut of the profits, and we’re big fans of it on Podia. (We have our own program here.
This, like SEO, can be done for free -- our favorite program, Rewardful, lets you start for free and takes 9% of each transaction -- or can run the gamut up to $299.00 for a basic plan, as you can see on Voluum.
Finally, there’s email marketing. Explaining the value of email marketing is worth its own guide (which is why we have one for online courses), but suffice to say, it’s a significant money maker for anyone in the information product trade.
And, like SEO and affiliate, it can be free -- but if you want more in-depth features or need more help, you’ll end up paying a premium.
MailChimp and Drip -- both of which Podia integrates with, by the way -- are two great marketing tools for this. They both offer free trials and limited accounts, but you’ll want the extras that come with it.
For Drip, your monthly premium will be $49.00 for the lowest priced plan. Annually, that’s $588.00.
MailChimp is a bit kinder and will cost you $10.00 for a growing business plan every month, or $120.00 for the year.
Assuming you do SEO yourself, take a cut of your affiliate transactions and sign up for MailChimp. Your yearly total for marketing services will run $120.00.
That price may significantly change depending on how ample your affiliate program is (where a 9% transaction fee can start to hurt).
So, where does that leave us?
How much does it cost to manage and maintain a membership site?
As a recap, here’s where the price stands so far for the first year of your membership site:
- CMS: $300.00
- Website Host: $140.06
- Domain Name: $8.99
- Marketing Services: $120.00
Which brings us to a total of $568.40 for the first year of your membership site, not including any additional elements like website design, data backup, or potential transaction fees.
The majority of that will need to be paid upfront, as well, with your host and CMS.
But what if I told you that you could eliminate all of the budget crunching with a flat, monthly fee of $79.00?
And, as part of that no-frills rate, you get way more value than just a place to manage your membership site. You also get:
- 24/7/365 support. Your business can’t afford to get stuck in limbo while you wait days for a support email. With Podia, you have instant access to world-class customer service whenever you need it.
- Affiliate marketing. Affiliate programs charge downright exorbitant rates to process your transactions and put a major damper on your income. But not us, not ever.
- Less administration. When you hack everything together with plugins, it’s a time sink to manage each one and keep them running. Less moving parts with Podia means less time worrying and managing those parts, more time building your business.
- Scalability. As your membership site grows, your bills will too -- especially with email marketing services and hosting packages -- but your fee never changes with Podia, no matter how amazing your business becomes.
- Versatility. If you want to expand your website and sell digital downloads (such as ebooks) or online courses, you can easily add them to your Podia storefront. No additional plugins or licenses necessary.
Best of all, all of these tools and benefits are offered from one convenient, ultra-easy dashboard.
But, I’m probably not the most impartial judge of this.