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Why your WordPress site might need a membership plugin

Sometimes when we as designers or bloggers create a new web site, we know that at some point in the future - if the site takes off - we may need functionality beyond the current set of WordPress plugins we’ve installed. You might need a membership plugin if you or your client are:

  • Building a community of people with a shared interest or skill set like a networking group or association.
  • Holding events and want to limit access or charge differently for certain groups of people.
  • A coach and hope to sell access to your resources and materials.
  • Creating a blog around a specific topic -- perhaps you are a subject matter expert -- and hope to one day monetize the content.
  • Forming a nonprofit or church that wants to accept recurring donations.
  • Putting together an online directory.
  • An arts organization that wants to show members’ works online and hold events.
  • Dreaming of ways to connect people to each other.

What is a membership plugin?

A WordPress membership plugin can serve many purposes for an existing organization or new enterprise. Its most important function is to help you collect member dues payments, maintain your membership records and send out renewal, failed payment and past due notices at the appropriate times to your members. On a secondary basis, membership software:

  • Allows members to sign up online and log in to enhance and modify their own member profile, including editing their credit card billing information.
  • Offers a way to restrict access to WordPress pages and posts to members only.
  • Delivers an online calendar, including allowing events or event tickets to be viewable by members only.
  • Provides other features such as online directories, forms and shopping carts.
  • Facilitates communications with members through email.
  • Creates reports from membership activity.
  • Integrates with other platforms such as accounting systems like Quickbooks.

When should you install a membership plugin?

Often the smartest approach is to start small and simple; with a WordPress website, you can install more powerful plugins as you need them. This keeps costs and time investment low. But sometimes waiting to upgrade can be tricky as migrating and uploading membership data is not something anyone really wants to spend time doing. It’s ideal to find a middle ground; with a little research, you can find a membership plugin that will scale and charge appropriately as you grow. If you are currently using something like a PayPal button along with a manually-updated spreadsheet to maintain member data, it’s time to install a membership plugin to simplify your life.

How do you choose a membership plugin?

First, create a comparison spreadsheet where you can track research. Create columns for:

  • Desired features,
  • Costs (don’t forget to include setup charges)
  • Support charges (if applicable).
  • Support types.

How do you choose a membership plugin?

While conducting research, consider that not every membership plugin will be a fit. Different types of membership websites will work best with plugins that have features relevant to their needs. Membership plugins generally fall into two categories:

  • Plugins for content creators like bloggers, coaches and those with courses. These site owners may want features such as drip content, digital downloads and learning management systems.
  • Plugins for membership groups like associations, nonprofits, chambers of commerce and clubs. These groups want features such as membership directories, event registration and invoicing.

It’s also a good idea to request a demo of any software that is a finalist under consideration.

Are there any downsides to a free membership plugin?

Who doesn’t like a free plugin? I like “free” too, but my philosophy is that free is great until something breaks. Then your free plugin becomes expensive. You can find membership plugins that are:

  • A freemium plugin that charges you once you want certain features or a certain number of accounts.
  • A paid plugin with a free trial that begins charging you once you reach a certain number of accounts, a specified number of admin users, a specific number of days using the software or other thresholds.
  • Paid plugins.

But the real question here isn’t whether you should use a free or paid plugin -- it’s more important to consider the safety and stability of your membership software and member database. Some of the worst things that can happen to a membership website:

  • A WordPress upgrade breaks your site.
  • Another plugin conflicts with your membership plugin and causes it to stop working.
  • Your membership list is obtained by hackers.

In general, SaaS-based membership software is the safest best to keep data secure, backed up and supported. Your membership database is too valuable of a business asset to take risks with; a SaaS works around the clock to keep things running smoothly and puts resources into security as many customers are dependent upon it. Some SaaS membership plugins are free for a small number of accounts and then charge as you grow, so there’s no need to wait to start using membership software.

How is a plugin integrated into WordPress?

Membership plugins allow you to easily integrate membership features into a WordPress site, typically through shortcodes that can be inserted into widgets, pages or posts. Your membership software may have shortcodes for creating: membership signup form, member login page, member-only page, event calendar, member directory, forms, shopping cart pages, member-generated event submission form, member deals and more. There will also be set-up work to do in the back end of the plugin to enter your payment gateway information, notification preferences, connect your accounting software and any other integrations you might have.

Popups are a good tool to collect email addresses from prospective members.

How do you promote membership sales?

From the beginning, it will be important to collect data or build lists of people who may one day be your members. A membership website doesn’t promote itself. Some ways to do this include:

  • Collect email addresses on your website using a popup form or an email signup widget in your website footer or sidebar. MailChimp currently offers a free plan for up to 2000 contacts. You can entice subscribers by offering to email them blog posts if they subscribe. Note that some membership software integrates with MailChimp, then you won’t have to do manual updates between systems.
  • Start a Facebook group where you gather people to discuss or learn about a specific topic. You post links to your blog posts to draw people to your website.
  • Form a LinkedIn group to discuss a business-related topic. Links to your website posts can also be posted here.

All of your communications with prospective members should include a button, link or other calls to action to drive prospects to your membership signup page.

Now that you are using a membership plugin, the signup process should work easily and smoothly. No more spreadsheets or manual data maintenance for you! If you run into trouble during the early days of configuring or operating your plugin, reach out to the plugin’s support team. Often there is free training and support available, sometimes even for customers on a free or trial plan.

Amy Hufford is a Technologist at MembershipWorks. She has worked in membership technology for more than 20 years and has experience building membership websites with a variety of membership software.

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