A buyer’s guide for choosing the best membership site platform for you

You’re thinking about embarking on one of the most rewarding journeys that an entrepreneur can take: building your very own membership community.

There’s just one big obstacle standing in your way: what’s the best membership site platform for me?

With so many software options to choose from, picking the right one for your needs can be overwhelming.

We built this membership site platform buyer’s guide to save you time and help make the best possible decision for hosting your community.

This guide includes:

Who should buy membership software?

Of course, there are lots of ways to build an online business, from online courses to selling digital downloads, and plenty more.

But memberships have some unique benefits over other product types:

Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to choose one type of product for your business. Memberships, courses and downloads can be — and often are — complimentary parts of a successful creator’s product mix.

Below are a few of the scenarios where a membership might be a great tool for you.

If you’re a…
Then a membership can help you…
Content creator (blogger, vlogger, podcaster, etc…)
Sell content directly to your audience without relying on ads, sponsors or affiliate partnerships. Cut out the middleman and build a deeper relationship with your tribe!
Service provider (consultant, freelancer or coach)
Add an additional revenue stream to your business by offering exclusive tips and advice for a subscription fee. It’s the perfect upsell opportunity to clients whose contracts are ending, or downsell for prospects who can’t afford or aren’t quite ready to pay for your full hands-on services.
Product company (software, eCommerce or brick-and-mortar)
Build a free “fan club” that offers your customers a unique behind-the-scenes look at the company behind the products they love. Increasingly, people crave a personal connection to the companies they buy from, and a membership is an extraordinarily powerful way to build that relationship.

Below are a few of the scenarios where a membership might be a great tool for you.

9 Key questions to ask

1. How much time do I have to set things up?

If you’re short on time, you shouldn’t have to spend hours trying to setup your membership. Nor do you want to spend days connecting software and third-party integrations.

Your limited time should be focused on content creation or helping members -- not platform customizations.

If, however, you have lots of time to spend on getting setup, then tools with more involved onboarding processes might still be worth looking at.

2. How much technical work am I willing to do?

If you’re non-technical and don’t have a lot of time to learn a new tool, you’ll want to make sure that everything “just works” out of the box.

The best way to determine this? Sign up for a free trial! You’ll learn very quickly how simple or complex the interface is.

If you’re technically savvy and want to set up as much of the system yourself as possible, then you won’t need to shy away from tools that require lots of DIY setup.

3. How much customer support do I need?

Some people prefer to be left alone and figure things out on their own.

If that’s not you, however, then you’ll want to make sure that the platform you choose offers customer support that’s responsive, friendly, and helpful. Having someone to talk to on live chat is even better.

Tip: you can test this for free, too! Try emailing a few questions to the support team of any tool you’re considering, and see how quickly and helpfully they respond.

4. Will the platform allow me to expand my business beyond memberships?

Nobody plans — or hopes — for their business not to grow.

So think about what you want the next several years of your business to look like.

Will you continue only offering memberships?

Or would you like to expand to other streams of revenue as well, like online courses and digital downloads? If so, make sure your platform lets you sell those, too.

Along with offering more options for what you can sell, you’ll also want a platform that doesn’t limit you in terms of members, hosting, emails sent and number of membership tiers.

Unless you plan to put a cap on your growth, unlimited everything is always best.

5. How does the platform handle payments?

It used to be standard for membership site platforms to collect money from your customers, hold on to it for a while, and then pay you.

These days, there’s a better way: connect your Stripe or other payment processing account to your membership platform, and get payments deposited directly and immediately to you.

Unless you’re fine with waiting, you’ll want instant payments directly to your account.

6. What other tools will I need to connect to make this work?

While every platform will claim to offer “everything you need to sell your membership”, this isn’t always true.

Will you need to host your own content on a third-party platform?

Will you need to setup an email service provider to deliver your content?

Will you need shopping cart software to capture payments?

If you want a platform that truly offers everything, ask these questions ahead of time to avoid unpleasant surprises.

7. What are the hidden fees?

Many membership site platforms, just like popular ecommerce platforms, charge transaction fees.

The cheapest plan on their pricing page might look good initially, only for you to discover that they’re going to take a huge chunk of your sales on the back-end.

Nearly every platform will make you pay a monthly fee (sometimes as high as hundreds of dollars), a transaction fee, or both.

We recommend choosing a platform with no transaction fees, as this can get very expensive as you grow.

8. What’s my budget?

Pricing can vary greatly between membership site platforms.

Providers offer everything from free plans to plans that cost upwards of $1,000 per month.

Some also tack on hidden fees to increase the monthly cost (see “What are the hidden fees?” above).

Having a budget in mind before you start to look can help you narrow down your options far more quickly.

9. Will my membership community look like “my own”?

There’s an important choice you have to make about the “brand” of your membership: do you want your membership to be your own site, or do you want it to be part of a larger directory of memberships?

Some platforms, like Patreon and Facebook Groups, are easy ways to spin up a membership, but your community is just one of thousands that your members can browse through (and be distracted by).

A dedicated white-label membership platform, on the other hand, will make your community look its very own brand, without looking like its hosted on a third-party directory.

Knowing which of these options you’d prefer will help you quickly narrow your choices.

The 10 most important membership site features to look for

1. Multiple plans.

Offering multiple plans (at multiple price points) is one of the easiest ways to create a membership community that works for as much of your audience as possible.

Being able to create multiple plans lets you build relationships with people from the day they’re only interested in a free or low-priced plan, all the way through until they’re ready to upgrade to your most premium plan.

2. Vertical integration across your business.

If you sell other digital products — like online courses and digital downloads — then you’ll probably want to be able to sell them from the same storefront as your membership.

Look for a platform that allows this kind of integration.

Even better: choose a platform (like Podia) that lets you offer your courses or downloads as perks for different membership tiers.

3. All-in-one.

You could sign up for a suite of separate tools to let you host your content, password-protect it, accept payments and send emails to your members, but why go through the hassle?

Choose a membership platform that handles the end-to-end management of your membership for you.

4. Direct Payments.

You don’t want to wait thirty days to get paid for a membership sale.

You want to get paid directly to the payment processor you connect, whether it’s Stripe, or something else.

Otherwise, you’re waiting around for thirty days or more to get paid for something you sold last month.

And when you’re paid directly, that means that all of the sales data is in your payment processor (rather than only in the course platform), so you can keep better financial records and take your data with you if you choose to switch platforms.

5. Content hosting.

If your membership software can’t host your content for you, move on. Don’t settle for having to use WordPress or YouTube to host your content in order to use the software.

You don’t want to spend the time wrestling between your content hosting platform and your membership site platform. They should be one and the same.

6. Affiliate marketing.

Maybe you’re just starting out and you don’t have any affiliates yet, but an important part of growing your membership business is recruiting others to help you promote it.

Affiliates can be very helpful as they’re often people who have already joined your membership and want to tell others about it.

Having a way to manage your affiliate program when you’re ready to launch one is going to save you time and hassle, and help you sell more.

7. Mobile-friendly.

Today’s online customers use their phones as much, if not more than their computers.

That’s why it’s so important to make sure that your membership site platform works well on mobile web browsers such as Safari and Chrome.

Not only are purchases often made on mobile phones, but your customers want to be able to take your content on the go and not have to wait until they’re back on their computers to consume it.

8. Unlimited everything.

You won’t know exactly how much content, file size, plans, and members you’ll have until well after you launch, but it’s important to not get hit with “overage” bills if you go over your plan’s allotment.

Find membership site platforms where everything is unlimited to give you peace of mind and save you time hunting for a new provider when you outgrow your current one.

9. Custom domains with SSL.

It’s your business, and you should own the brand.

Having your online membership on your own custom domain (like https://www.fiveideasaday.com/) is an important part of that.

Note the “https” part of that URL; that means that it’s a secure website and that during checkout, your customers’ details (name, credit card, etc.) will be transmitted securely rather than over “http” which is the unsecured part of the Web.

In 2018, customers are savvy enough to know not to buy from a website that’s not secured.

10. All file types accepted.

Whether your membership content is comprised of videos, MP3s, PDFs, text, or any other kind of files, you want to make sure that all of those files types work with the membership site that you choose.

Even if you don’t think you’ll ever add an audio post, you don’t know if that’s going to be the case in six months, so it’s important to have that flexibility from the start.

Next steps to launching your membership

We hope that this buyer’s guide has helped you get a better handle on your membership site platform search.

To get started, we recommend:

And if you have any questions while you search, shoot us an email or send us a message on live chat; we’d be happy to help!