With more people than ever working for home and the growing number of small businesses looking to the internet for the first time, there’s no question people are looking at membership sites these days. They likely will be for some time.

If you are just getting starting at building a membership site, one thing you’ll need to know is that an important part of your business model will be selling memberships. You also want to convert that traffic into paid memberships, and for that you need a great membership plugin.

But what constitutes a great membership plugin? You may have an idea of what you want it to do, but without a concrete list of items you need, you could spend a long time searching – there are a lot of WordPress membership plugins out there.

To help narrow down the search, here are a few questions you should ask before purchasing a membership plugin.

1. What are the technical requirements?

This may seem like an easy thing to pass up, but it’s an important one. If you have already chosen WordPress, you’re likely going to know the technical requirements of it. WordPress is written in PHP.

I’d recommend that when you are looking at hosting, you are looking at a hosting provider that offers PHP 7.3 or above. It will help your site speed quite a bit and you’ll be running on better infrastructure.

Your host should also include the option for SSL certificates. This is essential to taking payments on your site. Most hosts have integrated with Let’s Encrypt which is adequate enough if you are using a payment provider like Stripe.

2. How well will the plugin work with my WordPress theme?

There are two places where you can extend the functionality of WordPress. Themes and Plugins. Most cases you are going to be purchasing a plugin to add capabilities to your website, like memberships or restricting content. One area that will provide a great deal of the design side of your site is with a theme.

There are hundreds of thousands of themes available to choose from. While I could create an entirely different article about choosing a great WordPress theme that works with your membership site (which I just might need to), we’ll keep this section pretty brief.

Whichever WordPress theme you choose, you’re going to want to make it sure it does a couple of things really well.

Have Basic Form Styling

When you are building a membership site, you are going to have at least one form. Your cart. This is the most important form on your site as it’s the one that will accept your payments and turn your visitors into customers.

Good membership plugins will understand this and have the ability to remove its own styling of the cart in favor of letting your theme handle the design.

Due to the nature of a membership plugin, they will tend to style their own forms in the event that your theme doesn’t style them for you. This ensure a better experience for users of the membership plugin since the developers won’t know what theme you are using.

Have Full Width or Wide Page Templates

All membership sites have some sort of dashboard. A member’s dashboard is the first place your members will access every time they login. So it’s important that your theme support a wide or full width template layout.

Many membership plugins have the ability to create your dashboard for you. In most instances this will require you to have a larger width view so the plugin can provide all the information it needs.

Both of these features to me are what makes a theme work well with a membership plugin, but they aren’t the only things you should consider in a theme.

You should consider a few more things when evaluating a theme:

  • Does your theme work with a page builder?
  • Does your theme work with the Theme Customizer?
  • Does your theme allow you to easily edit the design?

These will make your experience working with your site that much easier. The last thing you want to do is select a theme that adds difficulty in editing the design of your site.

Testing Your Theme and Plugins

One simple way to vet a theme is by installing it through the WordPress theme directory. This doesn’t guarantee compatibility with your plugin, but it does make it more likely that the theme has been built to WordPress standards. However, the only way to be sure a theme will work with your membership plugin is to test it first on a staging or development site – in case this is your first foray into the world of WordPress, we should reiterate one of the basic tenets of web development here: never test on the live server

If there is a problem when you test, you’ll then need to determine whether the issue is with the plugin or your theme. Again, on the testing server, you can install other plugins and check for issues – if all plugins have problems, odds are good the issue is with your theme. However, if everything else is fine, it’s time to troubleshoot the plugin and ask the next question:

3. What type of support does it have?

Even the most technically adept users will need support from time to time, and the idea of plugins is that they can be installed by even non-technical users. So the support provided by the maker of the plugin is particularly important.

Reading not only the plugin’s documentation, but user reviews, is especially important here. What ways can you contact support? Is it limited to forums, is there a chat function, or email support? Ideally you want as many options as possible – while being able to contact the maker for direct support is ideal, often searching message boards for users with similar issues can provide insights as well. 

Reviews of a plugin offer a lot of insight too. Even if a maker advertises support, do they live up to what they promise? A lot of one-star reviews and complaints that help was non-responsive should be a red flag. Look for a high number of positive reviews – lots of stars is a good sign. Don’t let a couple of bad reviews scare you off, as we all know complainers speak loudly, but a majority of one-star reviews is definitely a sign that you should look elsewhere.

4. What are the pricing options?

This is a pretty important consideration, but it’s also not as simple as it sounds. WordPress plugins are offered on a pretty straightforward basis – either a one-time payment, or a recurring annual payment. But of course, it can get a lot more complicated – for example, prices are sometimes listed as “per month” but that price is based on an annual purchase.

Add-ins may also come in the form of upgraded features – we’ll get more into those in the next section. Ideally, you’ll find a plugin that meets all your needs in the base product, but if not, the ideal model is one that offers each additional feature on a per-item basis.

Often, though, you’ll see packages of two or three of the most popular features bundled together. Some higher math may be required to ensure you’re getting all the features you need and not paying extra for those you don’t.

5. Does it offer upgraded features?

For some membership sites, you may have very basic needs – protected content versus free content, and a plugin that offers a gateway to the former. This is a function that every membership plugin should offer. But when your needs get more complex – you want levels of membership, for example, with each level having access to different content – you need some more robust features.

Content dripping is a feature desired by many membership site managers. In a nutshell, it means that users can’t pay once, access all the content, and then cancel their membership. Instead, content dripping allows you to ration the content – only offering certain content after a certain amount of time. If you’re offering online classes this is an important feature, as it keeps members active for a longer amount of time.

Community features, such as forums, wikis, user profiles, and quizzes are another popular upgrade. This goes far beyond a basic pay-for-content site, creating an interactive, engaging environment for your members, so may be something you want to look into.

Payment options. Obviously, a membership plugin should come with a payment option, but multiple options may be an upgrade. If you want to offer different payment options or want to be able to change methods at some point, check to make sure whether this is a feature your chosen plugin offers.

Integration with email marketing platforms. If you want to email your members, you should look at what integrations the membership plugin works with.

Every membership plugin will offer a different choice of features, so it’s important to determine upfront what’s most important. You don’t know what you might need in the future, so play it safe. Select a membership plugin that gives you a variety of optional features you might use as you scale.

6. Can I export content out of the plugin?

Let’s face it, the two reasons to have a membership site are to make money and collect leads. You’ve presumably got the former covered. If you’re running a paid membership site, ensuring your plugin offers payment options should be a no-brainer. But what about those leads – which some might say are an even more valuable resource? People are coming to your site and entering their names, email addresses, as well as demographic information. What’s happening to that information? 

You should be able to export all your data into a .CSV file so you can import it into an Excel spreadsheet or a more sophisticated data analytics platform. Another option with your CSV file would be to upload it to your email marketing platform. Making sure you own your data and have easy access to it is important.

7. What happens if I don’t renew my license?

When it comes to such an integral part of your website, it’s pretty important to keep track of. You’ll want to know what happens to all the data you’ve collected. If you’ll be able to seamlessly migrate to another membership plugin. You don’t want your site to stop functioning if you let your license expire. Some of these answers will tie into the “can I export data” question above. Being able to export and store the data is absolutely critical.

These should be straightforward questions that are answered either in the plugin’s documentation or via the plugin’s maker. Ask these questions before you purchase a plugin, and if you sense any hesitation or have difficulty getting straight answers, move along to another plugin. Your WordPress website is your site, and you should be able to retain control over all the content and user data you collect.

Wrapping Up

When choosing a membership plugin, these are just a few of the questions you should ask – there may be others depending on your goals and specific needs. By following this guide, you should be able to narrow down the choices in membership plugins and select one that is best suited to your business model. Once that’s done, you’re on to the fun part – engaging members and making money. 

AJ Morris

About the author: AJ is the product innovation and marketing manager for iThemes and leads marketing efforts for Restrict Content Pro. He has years of experience working with and development membership sites.

4 comments

  1. Awesome review AJ, thank you! Can we expect some new features in rcp soon? It would be great if you guys have a public roadmap so we can all see what are you currently working on. Also, asking us what we want and need would be great and it is acually super important in the today’s modern business that is customer oriented. By opening yourself like this, it shows that you care and listen to your customers who are using the product. You can easiely achieve this in trello (public board) with a few columns, something like: Feature requests, in progress, complete etc. What do you think? Tnx!

    1. Hi Brando. Appreciate the comments. We have varying differences when it comes to roadmaps. Over the years, iThemes has tried both public and private roadmaps. There’s a number of challenges that come into play with both and for us it ultimately was decided that we’d go with a private roadmap. That doesn’t mean that when we get close to launching a new version we don’t talk about it or that we don’t survey our customers. Because we absolutely do that. 🙂

  2. I have a lifetime membership with RCP. I would love to have a plugin or the ability to create additional fields for the membership form and be able to do so without having to modify existing forms using php.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *