Launching a new membership site can be overwhelming…
The sheer number of different membership platforms, themes, plugins, shopping carts, email apps, etc., is enough to make your head spin!
To make matters worse, every half-baked blogger armed with an affiliate link has an “expert” opinion. Even legitimate authorities in the membership site space give you widely varying advice.
This abundance of choices paralyzes you. It delays your taking action action by weeks, months or years. And it can even scare you off from this whole membership site business entirely!
It’s for this exact reason that I’m now going to share with you what I consider to be the finest combination of tools (or, “stack”) with which to build your WordPress membership site.
I’ve arrived at this combo after years of working in the trenches on hundreds of membership sites, interacting with dozens of developers in this space, and poring over countless tools.
This isn’t some random pastiche of applications with good affiliate programs (which is too often the chief incentive that drives people to write favorable reviews about apps and services that may or may NOT actually deserve them). It’s what I use, what several of my customers use, and it works darn well.
Why These Tools? Why not others?
The ultimate membership site stack gives you a few important advantages:
- Stability – The apps are well supported, routinely updated, and properly coded. No spaghetti code or abandoned apps here.
- Extensibility – You have the ability to “extend” plugin functionality via APIs, there’s a wide availability of contractors familiar with the apps, you can build on it and connect it with other services.
- Flexibility – You’re able to make your membership site look & feel the way YOU want.
- Security – You have fewer apps to install, and thus fewer security vulnerabilities.
- Scalability – You can scale to tens of thousands of members without a single hiccup.
- Ease of use – They’re easy to use by you, your team, and your members.
- Future proofing – These aren’t fly-by-night applications. This is proven, tested, and widely-used software made by developers who are in it for the long haul and will continue to be around for many years to come.
*NOTE: While there are free and inexpensive apps you can use to set up your membership site, I wouldn’t recommend it for a serious business project. You (generally) get what you pay for.
I’ve chosen these specific apps not for how cheap they are, but to eliminate the burden of your having to choose from dozens of different options, do loads of research, agonize over feature comparison charts, and still potentially end up locked into a subpar stack.
WordPress vs 3rd party membership platforms
First let me address a common question I often get: “why can’t I just use Teachable or Kajabi for my membership site…?”
The answer is: you absolutely can.
In fact, there are some great 3rd party platforms out there that allow you to create and deliver your courses and membership sites all in one place, including:
But the fundamental shortcoming of all of these apps is that you’re completely dependent on them to provide the functionality you need.
What if you need an important feature…?
Well, you’ll just have to be patient until it’s released (IF it ever gets released, that is). What if you desperately need an integration with another core app in your tech stack? Hurry up and wait.
As illustrated in the screenshot above, it’s no fun to be locked into a platform and to be at the mercy of their agenda, which doesn’t always correspond with your own.
The bottom line is that when you use one of these 3rd party platforms you simply don’t have that much control.
Of course, I’d be remiss not to point out the obvious: it’s precisely this lack of control that’s so appealing to begin with. When you have too much flexibility you get stuck fiddling with the tech instead of spending your time creating content and doing your marketing.
In a word, you’re sacrificing flexibility for ease of use. That’s perfectly understandable and is entirely your choice to make. But it’s important to keep the long game in mind. You may not anticipate needing more flexibility with your tech in the beginning, and this lack of flexibility can come to bite you on the ass in a major way down the road. I’ve seen it happen time after time.
As your site grows you might find yourself boxed in by the limitations of a 3rd party platform. The simplicity that initially attracted you may end up being a significant bottleneck. And moving platforms is almost always a complete and utter nightmare.
Another drawback to using 3rd party solutions that people seldom consider is that you don’t OWN your platform. When you don’t own your platform you don’t own your business. If the platform changes, closes, pivots, gets sold, gets sued, whatever! – you, my friend, will be caught in the middle.
Shane Melaugh (from ThriveThemes) recently did a short live stream session covering this exact topic that you may find informative:
To some degree, of course, you’re always reliant upon another platform. After all, you don’t really “own” any of the tools you use. The only way to have some semblance of control is to be the developer. And even then, you’re still constrained by the capabilities of the tech you use to write your apps, the infrastructure where you host your stuff, the internet service provider that provides your internet, and so on.
So the control factor here is really a question of DEGREE.
You want to be in as anti-fragile a position as possible when it comes to your tech stack.
The platform that currently offers the greatest anti-fragility in the membership site space is WordPress.
With WordPress you can build your membership site YOUR way. Many of the biggest membership sites in the world run on WordPress, including my favorite community for membership sites and online business – The Member Site Academy.
WordPress is battle-tested, highly flexible, and free. The themes and plugins available for WordPress let you create just about anything you can imagine. And you’re able to pick and choose from a wide variety of vendors whose reputation and reliability you can easily go verify.
Hosting that doesn’t suck
The first layer of the ultimate membership site stack is your WordPress hosting…
It’s tempting to go with a widely-used, entry-level hosting provider like GoDaddy, Bluehost, HostGator or SiteGround because they’re “cheap”. But the truth is that they actually COST you money in the long run.
These big hosting companies put your websites on slow, shared servers. They generally have terrible support outsourced to India. They often partner with shady companies like SiteLock to extract as much money as possible from honest people by exploiting their ignorance of the nature of security issues. They nickel and dime you for every little “extra” which should be a core feature to begin with.
Repeat after me: “I don’t like stuff that sucks…”
The so-called managed WordPress hosting companies (who primarily manage to get more of your money by calling their product ‘managed’) often cache your site to death on the server level. Here’s a little secret about membership sites: caching plus membership plugins go together about as well as tequila shots and Indian food. And most of the time, you have no way to turn this caching off.
Instead of entering a land of endless frustration, we’re going to simply bypass these boondoggles and use CloudWays.
CloudWays is an affordable, truly scalable web hosting company that uses only the fastest, most stable (and ubiquitous) cloud hosting infrastructure providers in the world for your servers, including:
My preferred provider on this list is Vultr.
A 1GB Vultr server on CloudWays costs only $11/month and is more than powerful enough to run a membership site with several hundred members. When, one day, you outgrow the 1GB capacity, you can scale your server up to 2GB or more with a single click. You even get to pick the location where you deploy your server so you can get the best load times for your visitors!
I host my entire portfolio of websites on CloudWays. And it’s also the backbone of my managed WordPress hosting product, SpeedKills.io, which hosts many of my customers’ websites, including several membership sites.
CloudWays has continued to earn my business by improving their product and providing great customer service without all of the headaches and surprise caveats of the more well-known, so-called “cheaper” hosting providers.
With CloudWays you don’t pay ANY extra fees on top of what it costs for your server usage. Everything is included in that price. The performance is outstanding, the support is responsive (live chat 24/7!), and the back end is modern and user friendly.
You can read my full CloudWays review here.
Register your domains with NameCheap
Let’s back up a little…
Before you host your site you need to HAVE a site to host. That’s where NameCheap comes in. NameCheap is the modern, easy to use platform to register your domains and manage your DNS.
You can register your domain in about a million different places. I just like Namecheap because it’s so well-organized and easy to use, and I’ve never had any problems with it.
I’ve also noticed that when you buy a domain through a hosting provider you usually end up paying more than when you register it directly with a registrar like Namecheap. When I was a Bluehost customer, domain registration prices were in the neighborhood of $14. That’s way overpriced, and is one of the many reasons I left Bluehost and set out on the journey to find a hosting company that does things properly (which eventually brought me to CloudWays).
The Ultimate WordPress theme for your membership site
The next step in this setup is to install a theme on your WordPress site.
The theme we use in just about all of our projects is the Divi theme. My business partner Lesly turned me on to Divi. Lesly designs almost exclusively using Divi. Once he showed me how powerful it is, I asked him to switch all of our sites to it!
I used OptimizePress before, which I love and still use in the plugin version on several sites. But because Divi gives us SO much flexibility, and because we’re in this business for the long haul, I decided that it’s a better overall theme for serious projects.
The main reasons I love Divi so much are:
TRUE Responsiveness – Most WP themes create a mobile and tablet version of your site by adapting your desktop design for different dimensions automatically. This often gives you a bastardized mobile site with a subpar user experience.
Divi, however, lets you customize exactly how your site will look and feel on EACH individual device type (dekstop, table, and mobile). With more and more people using their mobile devices to access online content than ever before, this is a huge benefit.
Easy to Use – Divi has three editors: classic, live and wireframe. All three are fast, intuitive, and easy to use. You can build just about anything with Divi, especially if you’ve got some CSS savvy.
Well-Supported – Divi is extremely well supported by its developers. They release updates almost weekly. They’ve been around for years. And because it’s such a widely used theme, there are hundreds of contractors that work with Divi. Which means you can get design help when you need it.
It may be tempting to buy a shiny-looking theme from a marketplace like ThemeForest. Sure, it looks feature-rich and the price seems like a steal. But I strongly recommend you fight the urge to spend your money on anything from these marketplaces.
You’re generally better off buying directly from a developer who has a proven track record and doesn’t use a 3rd party marketplace to handle the transaction (which often means you can’t get a refund if you’re not satisfied; this is the experience I had with the much-lauded but ultimately disappointing X theme.)
Ridiculously Flexible – You can make your site look pretty much any way you want using Divi. The built-in Divi builder really is THAT flexible. Most other themes require extensive template and CSS customizations to even come CLOSE to the design you want. But with Divi, it’s just a matter of creating and arranging the right rows and elements, and then styling them with some CSS.
I use Divi on every new project I undertake, and I haven’t been disappointed yet. Of course, it helps that my business partner Lesly does most of the Divi designing himself with his Divi Design Service.
The Best shopping cart app for your membership site
About 6 months ago I invested $595 to join the pilot program of ThriveCart.
At the time, I didn’t really have the money to buy ThriveCart because I’d just started my new hosting company, which is 100% self-funded. I couldn’t rationally justify spending more than half a grand on ThriveCart!
Yet…I reached into my wallet, pulled out my blue & grey Paypal Debit Mastercard and sent ThriveCart $595. I then proceeded to survive on noodles for the next few weeks.
On the one hand, I desperately needed the cash. On the other hand, I knew that if I missed out on this limited, lifetime offer I’d be stuck paying a monthly or yearly fee FOREVER once they officially launched to the public.
Plus, I didn’t want to wait around till launch to start using this powerful software. See, I wanted to start selling my services and digital products right away so I could (hopefully) make my money back ASAP.
And because ThriveCart makes it so easy to start selling your stuff, and integrates so well with all of the major platforms – including my recommended payment processors, email marketing tool and WordPress membership plugin – I was able to get started immediately!
Before I signed up for ThriveCart I was using regular ol’ Paypal payment buttons to collect money from my customers.
I had no tracking, no stats, no affiliate program, no breakdown of purchases by customer / product… no nothin’!
I also lacked a professional looking checkout form and an automated way to add buyers to my Drip account.
Last but not least, I didn’t have any elegant way to set up funnels.
This last part irked me because I know how crucial funnels are to making serious bucks online. And I wasn’t about to spend $297/mo on ClickFunnels, even though my experience working with ClickFunnels on behalf of my customers has been pretty positive.
Once I got ThriveCart, I immediately started running all of my sales through the platform. I made my money back in the first 30 days. Boom! To date, the cart has been 100%, hiccup-free.
And as a cherry on top, I signed several new MemberFix customers who are ThriveCart users themselves, who use my services to help them set up and configure ThriveCart and related apps. Double boom!
ThriveCart is a lynchpin of this membership site stack for a few reasons:
- It features deep integration with ActiveCampaign directly inside the app
- It has a built-in funnel builder
- 1-click AND 2-click upsells
- A highly-developed Zapier app which allows you to extend functionality and connect with other apps crucial to your business
- A world-class development and support team (Josh Bartlett and Dale Miles for president!)
- Coming soon: dunning
- Coming soon: physical product support(!)
…and more than I can possibly cover here.
Despite the financial discomfort it caused me at the time, I’m 100% satisfied with my decision to hop on the ThriveCart bandwagon.
The ultimate email marketing app for your membership site
As of this writing, there’s no email marketing app that offers such a fantastic interplay of powerful functionality, ease of use, affordability, and integrations as ActiveCampaign.
It’s also one of the few email marketing tools that has a “deep integration” style membership plugin devoted to it (more on that in a minute). This is largely because the ActiveCampaign API is “open” enough to allow developers to interact with it to provide an “in real time” experience.
ActiveCampaign is one of the new generation of email marketing & automation tools that lets you create countless sequences and automations (using the drag and drop automation builder) that drive engagement, optins, leads, sales, and referrals for your online business, all on autopilot.
“Old generation” tools that are based around lists (like Aweber, and to a lesser degree, MailChimp) are out. Lists still have uses but the new wave is all about tags, custom fields, automations and campaigns. These features allow you to replace one-to-many marketing with a highly personalized, segmented and targeted approach that can do miracles for your business.
It doesn’t hurt that the Lite plan of ActiveCampaign is only $9/month, which is more than enough to get you started.
While I love and have use Drip (perhaps AC’s biggest competitor), when it comes to membership sites, ActiveCampaign is simply superior. In fact, we’re in the process of migrating from Drip to ActiveCampaign right now.
The “disruptive” membership plugin for WordPress
I recently wrote an article about the new “deep integration” / unbundling movement that’s happening in the membership site world, and in the online marketing world as a whole.
The WordPress membership plugin that’s spearheading this movement is ActiveMember360.
AM360 is a “deep integration” style plugin that works specifically with ActiveCampaign. All of the permissions and protections on your site are controlled by ActiveCampaign. AM360 simply “calls” ActiveCampaign to look up your members’ contact records, and then shows or hides the appropriate content based on their tags.
It completely eliminates the need to sync payment start dates and end dates with access start dates and end dates. It removes the burden of syncing products, bundles and membership levels with members’ records between your email marketing app and your membership plugin.
AM360 runs countless 5, 6 and 7 figure membership sites. It’s got an extensive library of shortcodes that lets you perform virtually any function you can think of. It’s constantly upgraded. It just plain works.
The support from Bob Keen and his brother Norm is fast, personal, professional and thorough. In fact, I’m constantly amazed at how Bob is even able to run his business with all of the time he spends answering questions and helping the members of the ActiveMember360 and iMember360 (the InfusionSoft version of the same plugin) Facebook groups.
Lesly recently posted a question on the AM360 group and Bob Keen offered to step in and lend a hand, personally. Legend.
AM360 works beautifully in conjunction with our hosting, our theme, and the other apps in this stack.
A learning management system (LMS) to “gamify” learning
Many membership sites are at heart learning communities.
If your members aren’t getting the results they should be, it’s possible that you’re not presenting the course content in a particularly “learnable” way.
Learning management systems (LMS) seek to address this problem by “gamifying” the learning process. They do this with various methods such as progress tracking, worksheets, preventing you from moving on to the next lesson until you’ve satisfactorily completed the previous lesson, assigning badges and ranks, and so on…
This approach isn’t equally useful for everyone. But if it sounds like something you’d want to use to present your content in a more engaging way – particularly if you have a lot of courses and trainings in your membership site – then the LMS I recommend is LearnDash.
I’ve worked with a number of LMS programs like WP Courseware, Lifter LMS, and others, and LearnDash seems to be the most flexible, intuitive and well-supported. Several of my customers use and love LearnDash as well, and I’ve set it up a number of times with relative ease.
Note that it’s not always necessary to use a Learning Management System to present your content. In fact, it makes sense primarily when your goal is for your members to really absorb and internalize the content for some specific purpose, e.g. guitar lessons, or modules that prepare students for an exam, etc.
And LMS gives your members a sense of progress and accomplishment, which arguably improves retention because your members feel rewarded for their learning efforts. I’m still learning more about the way gamification works in the context of online business, so I’ve started reading the book Gamify: How Gamification Motivates People to do Extraordinary Things.
Do I need a forum? And which one?
A highly engaged forum can do wonders for your retention. In fact, many membership sites are little more than a bustling forum. But which one should you use…?
The forum software that I recommend is IPBoard. Not only does it power the communities of many huge organizations and companies like Evernote, and various teams from the NHL (National Hockey League), it also powers my favorite membership site: The Member Site Academy.
When I joined the Member Site Academy it gave me my first interactions with IPBoard. Since then I’ve been smitten.
It’s fast, beautiful and intuitive. It gives you Facebook-like notifications which keeps members engaged. It sends you emails when you’re mentioned in a forum discussion. It integrates with WordPress (albeit you need to buy a bridge plugin). And it’s well maintained and updated.
Check out my Member Site Academy walkthrough video below to see for yourself how IPBoard looks and feels:
Audit log for fighting chargebacks
If you’re selling a high-ticket course or membership you probably have to deal with chargebacks and refund requests…
One way to combat abuse is to require your customers and members to provide proof that they’ve at least attempted to use your materials before you’re able to grant them a refund. It’s not always in the best interest of your customers to offer a “no questions asked” money back guarantee. You’re trying to help people solve their problems. And while risk reversal is the best practice in the internet marketing orthodoxy, it also provides an easy “out” when, inevitably, things get difficult.
The audit log plugin lets you see everything that any user does on your site. So if somebody claims they’re unsatisfied with your product and initiates a chargeback, you can check to see whether or not they’ve even accessed your resource, and fight the chargeback with tangible proof.
It’s also very interesting to scour through your logs and see what pages people are visiting, what content they’re interacting with, etc. It may provide you with some valuable insights about your membership site.
Observing your users’ habits is an illuminating practice in general. My good friend Josh Denning of AuthorityFactory has gleaned powerful insights by using HotJar on his landing pages to see what people read, click, when they exit the site, etc.
WordFence for your membership site security
WordFence is the best security plugin for WordFence on the market.
We use WordFence on all of our sites. And the free version is more than sufficient to protect against malware and intrusions.
The WordFence team is passionate about security. They keep their finger on the pulse of their space and send out updates on the latest security issues, how they’ve addressed them, and how WordFence has been updated to protect you.
It’s a good idea to install and configure WordFence immediately after you deploy WordPress on a new site.
The fundamental problem with WordFence – and indeed, with all WordPress security plugins – is that they detect malware AFTER it’s already been installed on your site. WordFence updates your plugin as soon as they learn about new vulnerabilities, so it does have some preventative value as well.
Ideally, your hosting company has security sorted on the server level as we do with CloudWays. This is where security measures make the most impact. But I still think it’s valuable to have WordFence installed to proactively scan for issues and send you email notifications of unusual activity so you can address it swiftly.