How to Build a Membership Website with WordPress in 7 Steps
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How to Build a Membership Website with WordPress in 7 Steps

Perhaps you already have a WordPress website and now need to sell memberships, or maybe you are a designer or agency with a client who has hired you to build a new membership website for them. WordPress is a great platform; it runs over 60% of websites with a content management system. Because of its large user base, you’ll have many membership plugin options.

Step 1: Choose a WordPress membership plugin

If you search the WordPress plugin repository for “membership”, you’ll find more than 46 pages of results, which can feel overwhelming when you’re doing due diligence. Let’s narrow the search. There are a variety of factors to consider when it comes to choosing the best membership plugin. Will the site be the public face of a membership organization such as a trade association, chamber of commerce, club, or other type of non-profit? Or are you simply trying to restrict access to member-only pages or a member-only blog? This second scenario is popular for coaches, influencers, and thought leaders with valuable content behind a paywall. Considering these scenarios, consider the needed features and choose the appropriate plugin.

Typical features for membership organizations:

  • Member dues and recurring payments (including varying payment options and billing cycles)
  • Member directory with member profiles
  • Member and non-member event registration
  • Accepting donations
  • Shopping cart
  • Bulk emailing
  • Member forms
  • Integration with accounting software such as Quickbooks

Typical features for monetizing content:

  • Many of the features above
  • Upselling features
  • Drip content
  • Sell online courses
  • Digital downloads

Investigate the fees

Some membership plugins charge transaction fees on top of credit card processing fees, while others do not. When you add these per-transaction fees to the payment gateway or credit card processing fees, they can take a significant cut of your membership revenue. Carefully evaluate each plugin’s fee structure to see what makes the most sense.

SaaS or no SaaS?

Some membership plugins rely strictly on WordPress to store all the membership data; others put data in the cloud and run your membership system from there. Putting all your eggs in one basket by having valuable membership data and contact information directly in your WordPress database should give you pause. A SaaS (Sofware as a Service) membership plugin will be more secure. Do you forget to stay on top of plugin upgrades? Are you unsure if your system complies with privacy laws such as GDPR or CCPA? You have less to worry about with a SaaS. Even if your site gets hacked (and we know that WordPress can be a target of hackers due to being open source), your member data will be stored elsewhere. SaaS-based plugins will have ongoing fees, but this will typically entitle you to ongoing support, which can be a lifesaver.

Step 2: Set up your payment gateway in your membership plugin

You’ll need a payment gateway account with Stripe, Authorize.net, PayPal, or another payment gateway. You can’t typically escape credit card processing fees, but if you are building a nonprofit website, you can often take advantage of a discounted credit card processing fee structure. Each plugin has different payment gateways that they work with. After setting up your gateway account and tying it to your bank account, plug your API information or keys into your membership software.

Step 3: Integrate the WordPress membership plugin

wordpress membership plugin

Your membership plugin should offer a seamless way to integrate with features such as:

  • Member signup form
  • Member profile management
  • Member landing page and other members-only content
  • Membership Directory
  • Event Registration

It’s often as easy as copying and pasting a WordPress shortcode into a shortcode block on your page. Different page builders may have other types of blocks that work best.

Step 4: Set up membership levels

Most WordPress membership sites have more than one membership level. You can offer premium or basic memberships for a monetized blog that allows varying content or feature access levels. You might have an affiliate, regular, and lifetime members for an association website. Get clear on the pricing structure and consider what payment options will be available:

  • Organizations with an older demographic may still want to accept check payments in addition to online payment options.
  • Other sites offer one option — an automatic recurring payment.
  • Consider if you want to offer monthly plans and an annual subscription.
  • Will you have rolling (renewing on the day a member joined) or fixed renewal dates (renewing on a specific date such as Jan. 1 each year)? While having a fixed date sounds tidy,  rolling renewals maximize profit by avoiding prorated payments.
  • Most marketers would advise listing your membership levels in order of highest to lowest price.

Remember to set up reminder notices for upcoming and past-due renewals, especially if you have one-time or offline payment options such as checks. Customizing these emails and your welcome and upgrade letters is a good idea. Consider each communication another marketing opportunity to sell the value of membership and connect members to the features on the site they’ll use the most.

Step 5: Set up your forms

These tips will help you optimize each of these forms within your membership management system:

  • Member signup form – Put the form at the top of the page so prospects don’t have to hunt or scroll down to join. Delete any unnecessary fields (realizing that the shorter your member intake form, the higher your form conversion rate will be). Avoid extraneous information and moving animations or auto-play videos so members can focus on joining.
  • Member login form—Make sure your members have an easy way to request their password so that you stay out of the loop. When members log in, they’ll need an easy way to edit their credit card information and change membership levels. It’s nice also to enable the members to view their payment history.
  • Member profile form—If you have a directory, members will need to be able to upload their logo, headshot, and perhaps other data. You should add a way for members to choose what tags or labels apply to them. Labels allow you to categorize members for administrative purposes or an online directory (e.g., business type, industry, certifications, specializations, special status, etc.).
  • Admin member view – It’s common to create custom fields for the membership signup form and then forget to add them to the administrator’s view of the member. You’ll want to see all the data your members have entered, so don’t forget this step.

Step 6: Import any existing members

If this is a brand-new website, there will not likely be anyone to import, so skip to the next step. If this membership site is for an established group like a chamber of commerce, you must bring over the membership database. This import will often take the form of a CSV file that you can generate from Excel or export from your current membership system.

Before importing:

  • Clean up your member data. Make sure there are no typos, spaces, or weird characters in names and email addresses.
  • Decide if you are importing past-due members or just current members.
  • Include a column for the membership renewal date. Otherwise, the membership management software will not know when to send a renewal notice.
  • Include a column for membership level.
  • Look to help documentation to see if renaming your spreadsheet columns will smooth the import process.

Step 7: Announce your new website

It’s time to spread the word. Some creative ways to announce your site include:

  • Create a video tour of special member features.
  • Post a blog with a scavenger hunt challenge for members or prospects to find specific features or bits of information on your site. If members are involved, challenge them to log into their profile and make edits or upload profile info as part of the game.
  • Use guest bloggers to write posts and/or ask them if they’ll do a review post on their site or announce it on their social channels.

Don’t forget the essential announcements:

  • Do a mass email to any existing members about new features they’ll enjoy and how to log in.
  • If you have a forum or social media groups, make multiple posts there (a series of posts featuring new member benefits on the site can be fun)

Beyond making announcements, also consider how to bring more traffic to your blog so that you can expand membership outreach beyond your current audiences.

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