Paid membership websites

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Can member subscriptions pay their way?

To assess business opportunities from a subscription-based income, let’s assess:

  1. Is there an easy-to-identify market who are willing to pay?
  2. What technology tools are available to build that community?

Subscription-based member websites: Is there a market?

This is a decision only you can make, based on who your members are. Will they pay for the information (and add-on services) you offer? Every audience is different.

Just because this is a topic you feel passionately about, doesn’t mean others will feel the same.  Before you begin, you need to do some real market research, that goes beyond your friends and family.

  1. EXACTLY WHO will pay for this content. Be specific, because that will later define how and where you market.
  2. HOW MUCH will they pay? What’s your break even – how many regulars will you need to attract?
  3. HOW will they pay? Can you get away with offline payments? If you are going to use online payments, that adds a lot to your maintenance costs and work.

Subscription-based member websites: build & maintain

Tools for Delivery: managing the technology

Subscription ecommerce grew 65% last year so like eLearning, many companies are now offering cloud-based “by-the-month” solutions.

  1. Facebook groups introduced us to online communities, but there is no payment gateways and their algorithm that makes it impossible to reach your followers.
  2. Mighty Networks. My GLDC community is on Mighty Networks. I’m impressed with the technology, but I can see that people rarely use it. It offers forums, courses with both recorded or live events, private messaging and more.
  3. Several course builders offer community features – Thinkific is free, and I’m told Kajabi isn’t bad.  Both allow a some free content to draw people in. Teachable isn’t even good for courses, and worse for marketing.
  4. Patreon offers community and course building options but not much more. It’s fine for a start-up, but will your members move with you when you have to migrate?
  5. Substack is a great place to create a paid newsletter, share it with the world, and collect payments. Sadly, it’s mediocre email platform compared to MailChimp or ConvertKit.
  6. Discourse is based an online forum. It’s not user friendly, and only suitable for nerdy types.
  7. WordPress Plugins – see below

Best WordPress plugins for subscription-based member websites

I’m not being paid by any of the providers, so this is an unbiased review. These are my requirements for a good WordPress plugin:

  1. It has a free version for start-ups testing their concept.
  2. There is free or open content to build membership and search engine optimization.
  3. There is paid, premium content capable of handling audio, video, text and images.
  4. The plugin is appropriate for the functionality, size and complexity of the site.


I only found one free plugin that works the way all the big publications do. It is easier to sell a subscription works in a familiar way.

Leaky Paywall is very simple. It measures the number of page the reader clicks on. After a metered number of pages, the person can’t read more until they pay.

  • The entire site can be indexed by Google.
  • You can demonstrate value to your audience.
  • Is it easy to cheat? Can you get past by clearing your cookies? I can’t answer this.
  • Cookies won’t be legal in countries that require GDPR (i.e. user permission for cookies)
  • The pro version is VERY expensive – and that is where the payment gateways are.


If you use roles to manage content restriction, or a a cloud-based CRM to email your newsletter, this is a great combination.

  • Forminator can improve on default WordPress login and registration forms.
  • Hustle manages popups.

With additional programming, it might be possible to implement a metered paywall far better than the expensive pro version of Leaky Paywall.

  • Forminator allows Stripe and PayPal payments.
  • Forminator allows additional questions to qualify your subscribers.
  • Subscription submissions are in a separate table. You don’t put your website at risk if you are just collecting email addresses.
  • Great functionality for managing submissions.
  • Pop-ups are more attractive, and less annoying than most.


If your income is earned from marketing your members to others (services, dating etc), this is a good choice. Ultimate Member offers user registration and login, role editing, user profiles, a content restriction and best of all, a Members directory.

  • Elegant layouts for each member profile
  • Members can show off their work, including blog posts.
  • Members can be auto-approved, require email activation or be manually approved.
  • Suitable for offline payments or an organization that operates in the real world.
  • You can create multiple registration forms so each user role has unique questions. So for example you can have different setup questions for cat owners vs dog owners, or agents vs authors.


I tried this first, and despite it’s limitations it’s the one I will recommend to clients as an all-in-one solution. It is currently completely open source – so you aren’t locked into ever-increasing annual prices.

Pro: I love the functionality and way they have thought through what a Membership website needs…

Con: … but it is quite ugly (at least on MY theme). I know I shouldn’t care so much about looks, but I do. I think poor design affects credibility, and stops people registering.

Pro: It creates a membership eco-system that does make life easy…

Con: … but you won’t be able to expand beyond what they offer.

What they have is amazing for a free plugin!

  • Unlimited restriction of content by category, type, page.
  • Unlimited membership level.
  • Unlimited members.
  • Free extensions for basic courses, events, forums and downloads.
  • Includes Stripe, PayPal and Payfast in the free version.
  • Free and paid registration.
  • Recurring subscriptions.
  • Restricts access to WordPress dashboard (security).
  • Require a strong password (protects your site and other members).
  • Integrates with ConvertKit, Slack, WooCommerce and many more.

The Pro version is affordably priced at $400 per year. It has all you need for a professional membership website – this site can grow with your community.

  • Define how many pages a non-member can see until they hit a paywall.
  • Schedule content as a “drip feed” based on their membership start date.
  • Member Directory and Profile Pages – market your members.
  • Free or reduced trial periods, with payment to auto-start when the trial ends.
  • Import and Export Members.
  • Sophisticated payment options.


See my detailed review of this here.

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