Membership site vs online course

Membership Site vs Online Course: What’s the Difference?

If you’re not sure what the difference is between a membership site vs online course, you just landed in the right place.

Chances are, if you’re studying up on the differences between membership sites and online courses, you’re already interested in creating one or the other. You’re just not sure if you should create a membership site or an online course.

The truth is that both options can work great to build a healthy stream of income. The choice you make will mostly depend on your specific needs, the subjects you’re teaching, and what your students expect out of your program.

For example, a membership site will be the better option if you’re looking to bring ongoing content to the table. It’s also a better choice if you’re looking to build a strong community and long-term recurring revenue.

Conversely, an online course may suit you better if you have specific topics that will follow a given number of lessons for the student to reach an end result. 

This would not include any ongoing content after the lessons are completed.

In this guide, we’ll take you through all the differences between a membership site vs online course. By the end, you’ll know exactly which one will work best for you, and how to get started on your journey.

Let’s begin.

Membership Site vs Online Course - what's the difference?

What Is a Membership Site?

In nearly all cases, membership sites will have specific characteristics that differentiate them from online courses.

First of all, on a membership site, a customer will be given immediate access to all paywalled content immediately after they make a payment to become a member. Payments are typically required every month, or year, for a member to continue being a part of the community.

Memberships will then continue on indefinitely until the user decides to cancel the membership.

A lot of membership sites also have strong communities. And while it’s not absolutely necessary for a membership site to have a community, it is a major determining factor for sophisticated 2021 Internet users.

Components of the community often include discussion boards or forums where your members can connect and discuss your content among themselves. Some sites have weekly “mastermind” sessions, conducted live, where the community members share their ideas and tips among each other.

Membership sites also feature regular new content. They aren’t frozen resources with a limited amount of content for users to learn from. In fact, successful membership sites are always filled with the newest information within their niche. Doing so keeps members around for much longer, while continuing to renew their membership fees.

Now, it’s important to note that membership sites can contain their own collection of online courses behind their paywall. This can be used as one of the benefits for becoming a member.

But a membership site is a lot more than an online course.

Additionally, nearly all membership sites allow users to turn into members any time they want. Then the member is able to work through course material at a pace that suits them. 

There are, however, some membership sites that only accept memberships at certain times of the year.

Membership site vs online course

What Is an Online Course?

Now that you have a better idea of what a membership site is, what’s an online course?

Typically, online courses will include all (or most) of several characteristics. 

First of all, online courses normally operate with one-time-only fees to gain access to content.

A customer pays once for an online course they’d like to pursue, and they gain full access to the content contained in the course. There’s no need to continue paying a subscription fee to keep access to the information the customer has paid for.

Online courses also have more built-in structure than membership sites. Each course is normally broken down into individual modules and lessons. There’s a very specific way that the user needs to work through the information within the course. An online course will normally come with a detailed introduction that lays out each step that a user needs to take, from beginning to end.

Online courses will sometimes provide all of the available course content upfront or may choose to drip-feed each sequential piece of content every day or week. This idea works well for online courses that are academic in nature.

Most often, an online course will give its students regular quizzes or assignments to test what they’ve learned. Some tests are graded by an instructor, or may simply be a way for the student to know how they’re progressing.

In lieu of quizzes, one interesting idea for online courses is action steps. This is when the student needs to go out into the world and apply what they’ve learned in real life.

Online courses also provide tracking progress. This gives students the ability to see exactly how much of the course they’ve completed, then automatically opens the course to exactly where the student left off on a prior session.

Lastly, and unlike membership sites, online courses walk students step-by-step through the course, all the way through completion. Upon completion, the student will have attained a specific skill or knowledge set and the course will not be updated any longer. Their length is finite and doesn’t change with time.


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Should You Create a Membership Site or an Online Course? Key Differences

If you’re not sure whether to start a membership site vs online course, there are some specific questions you should ask yourself that will help reveal the answer.

1. Are You Willing and Able To Create Ongoing Content?

Before you start, consider all the different topics you want to include. Will you have enough content that you’ll be able to add new content regularly on your site for at least a year?

When it comes to your chosen field or niche, will there constantly be new things you’ll be able to share to an audience that wants your continued support?

If so, a membership site is the way to go.

2. Do You Want To Commit To Long-Term Work?

Membership sites are a lot more work than online courses. And while they’re more work, they often come with more monetary reward. However, you’ll need to be pushing out new content on a regular basis, or your members will simply cancel their subscriptions.

By comparison, online courses work well for site owners that prefer a more hands-off approach to creating a passive income. Remember, however, that even if you choose to run an online course you’ll still need to answer customer questions and continue to actively market your course.

If you stop marketing, the income from an online course will immediately dry up.

3. Does the Topic You’re Covering Follow a Set Sequence?

Online courses work best for topics that you can break down into specific steps and have a tangible end result.

As an example, if you’re teaching your students how to start their own WordPress site, you’d be able to set up a specific number of lessons to accomplish that task. Then they could come back and reference those materials if they ever needed to.

That’s not to say that online courses are only for small topics. A lot of popular online courses are extremely comprehensive. They may include dozens of lessons that each cover different aspects of the topic in depth.

Either way, online courses always have an end goal in mind with their lessons. More content will not need to be added unless you want to create additional courses to sell separately.

4. Is Having an Online Community Important To You?

If you decide to run a membership site, it’s important to remember that creating and maintaining a community will be a big part of what you do. And if you do have an active community going, your paying members will definitely expect you to personally and regularly reply and participate in their comments and questions.

And while this may sound enjoyable in many ways, remember that it’ll add a lot of extra work to your table every day. But maybe this doesn’t sound like work to you at all!

If so, a membership site is definitely the way to go.

You’ll also need to moderate your online community to keep it within a set of expectations and rules that your members will demand. While this typically won’t take a lot of effort, it can become a big problem if your site ever comes under attack by bots.

That’s why, for WordPress site owners, it’s important to be running a WordPress security plugin that will keep the site secure from hacks and malicious attacks. 

Now, that’s not to say that online courses can’t have their own active communities. The difference is that in most cases, there isn’t much of an expectation that the instructor is regularly active in the forums. On a membership site, you will be the star of the show. Your members will expect to see you around, active, and being a big part of how the community is run.

They’ll be looking directly to you for ongoing learning and further inspiration, often in real-time.

5. Is Recurring Income Important To You?

A membership site is able to provide you with a steady stream of income through monthly or yearly ongoing membership fees. You’ll need to pay a lot of attention to your churn rate, however. This is measured by the balance of how many members quit their memberships vs how many new members come on board.

If members don’t feel like they’re getting enough value from their memberships, you can expect to see more cancellations than new members.

However, assuming that you’re providing great content on a regular basis, you can expect that you’ll start to build up your stream of recurring revenue quite quickly.

Your expected revenue from online courses tends to be a bit more fluid, as it’s mostly tied to how you market, your competition, or your enrollment periods.

There’s really no right or wrong answer about creating a membership site vs online course. It really depends on what’s more important to you and what your goals are.

And of course, it mostly depends on what the best approach is concerning your chosen topics and the type of audience they appeal to.

The Best Membership Site Platform

If you’ve decided to launch a membership site, you’ll want to do it in the most streamlined, affordable, and professional way possible.

To start this process, you’ll first need to decide what platform to run your website on. For millions of site owners, that answer is WordPress. If you’re not familiar with WordPress, this guide will effortlessly get you going. 

In fact, you can have your WordPress site live in less than an hour.

Then you’ll want to download and install the Restrict Content Pro plugin. It’s the best solution on the market to build a fully functioning, highly robust membership site that will look as good, or better (if you choose to use Kadence Theme as your theme of choice) than some of the big membership sites already out there.

With Restrict Content Pro, you’ll be able to lock away your exclusive, members-only content by making it available to only your paying members.

It also gives you the ability to:

  • Create discount codes
  • Use built-in integrations
  • Manage your members
  • Create an unlimited number of subscription packages
  • Send welcome emails to new members, email payment receipts, and remind members before their account expires automatically
  • Create reports
  • And a lot more

Best of all, the plugin is extremely easy to use. It’s really the only plugin you’ll need to run the membership functionality on your website.

The Best Online Course Platforms

If you decide to run an online course WordPress site, you’ll need to dig into some of the different Learning Management Systems (LMS) available for WordPress site owners.

Like Restrict Content Pro for membership sites, these are also WordPress plugins that you’ll need to download and install to run an online course website.

What’s interesting is that Restrict Content Pro can also be used for online courses by simply downloading the WP Complete plugin in addition to the Restrict Content Pro plugin. This will turn Restrict Content Pro into an LMS by adding course completion possibilities.

Now you’ve got a site that can be both a membership site and an online course site!

If you’d rather have a site that can only function with online course capabilities, some of the most popular LMS plugins include:

  • MemberPress Courses
  • LearnDash
  • LifterLMS
  • Teachable

There are others available that you may want to check out.

Who Should Go With a Membership Site?

If you think the following bullet points sound like you, you should strongly consider starting a membership site vs online course:

  • Your topics or niche is broad and you’ll be able to continually create a lot of new and exciting content for your members
  • You look forward to investing time into making a fun, interactive, and informative community for paying members
  • You’re familiar with selling digital products or are willing to learn
  • Your commitment is to provide consistent value, every single month, to members who spend their hard-earned money on your membership
  • You prefer stable, long-term income over short bursts of fluctuating income
  • When you’re constantly helping other people in some way, you feel fulfilled.

Who Should Go With an Online Course?

If this sounds more like you, an online course might be the way to go:

  • You’re not necessarily an expert in your chosen niche, but you have something to teach within it
  • You haven’t done a lot of content creating or online marketing in the past
  • Your topic is very specific and doesn’t change a lot as time moves on (think, “How To Properly Sharpen Knives” as an example)
  • You don’t really want this to be your full-time gig, rather more of something you do on the side to generate additional income
  • You’re not interested in routinely adding new content or building a larger product offering every month
  • You’re not necessarily interested in starting an online community. And if you are, you don’t want to be tied to it on a daily basis

Membership Site vs Online Course: The Choice Is Yours

Now that you have a thorough understanding of the differences between membership sites and online courses, hopefully, the decision for you is much simpler.

Either way, you decide to go, you’ll need the right tools to help you get there. Restrict Content Pro is the perfect solution for WordPress site owners that decide to run a membership site. And it may very well be the best solution, coupled with the WP Complete plugin, to launch your online course.

Here’s to your success!

More to Think About

Be safe and secure!

Of course, if you plan on running a membership site, it’s important to also run the best WordPress security plugin that will keep it safe from malicious hacks and attacks.

Also, be sure to run a WordPress backup plugin that will keep your entire site backed up and ready to restore if you should ever run into unexpected problems.

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