Over the past few years I’ve personally built hundreds of membership sites of all shapes and sizes. Through that process, I’ve learned that:
This guide is everything that I wish I knew when I first starting building membership sites. It's designed to dramatically accelerate your learning curve so you can figure out what to build, how to assess the different products you'll need, and how to build your site as efficiently as possible.
And let’s get this out of the way early on—I’m a Co-founder of Outseta, one of the membership software products we’ll discuss in this guide. Take that bias as you will—I’ve written openly about my approach to competitors and my only objective here is to help you find the right product for your needs specifically. Nobody wins by signing up customers that aren’t a great fit—I recommend all of the products mentioned in this guide every single week. Two things that I’ll promise you from the get-go:
Let’s do it, shall we?
It seems like everybody wants to launch—and join!—membership sites these days. But what do we actually mean when we say “membership site?”
The truth is “membership site” is often used as a pretty broad, catch-all term for any website that charges recurring membership fees. And that’s fine—that’s the definition we’ll use, too. Some of the more common types of membership sites include:
A “traditional” membership site is simply a website where users pay a recurring fee for access to the site's content. This is often written content, videos, or tutorials that users can login to access once they purchase a membership.
Recently there’s been a huge surge in growth for membership communities. In this case membership fees are paid in exchange for access to online communities, where members can interact with one another. The value (what you’re paying membership fees for) is largely interactions that take place within the community—the network. These communities are often built using tools like Tribe.so, Circle.so, Discord, or Slack.
You might not think of software products as “membership sites,” but SaaS products operate the same way—users pay membership fees for access to a software product.
Membership sites can also include sites that offer access to in-person activities. Consider a fitness or yoga studio that charges a recurring fee for access to their classes.
While all of these product types may feel distinctly different, they all typically rely on a membership site in order to operate and sign up new members. The products and guidance listed in this guide will help you build any of these types of membership sites.
Don’t build a membership site for the sake of building a membership site. Yes, this can be a wonderful way to build your financial freedom but if you don’t have a clear sense of how you can deliver enough value to a specific group of people to warrant charging membership fees, this whole process will be a giant waste of time.
Consider the following questions:
Ultimately this guide isn’t going to tell you what you should build. But once that idea strikes you, this guide will help you bring your idea to life.
The most important question I ask every founder of a membership site to consider from the get-go is “What is more core product?” If you’re keen on building a membership site, chances are you’re already entrepreneurial and excited about your idea.
That’s good! You want to harness that energy, but you also want to get started efficiently.
“I’m going to build a membership site focused on learning to play soccer. There’s going to be video tutorials on the website, an online community, monthly in-person meetings, bi-weekly Zoom calls for all members, and we’re going to all attend the World Cup together next year!”
Sounds like you?
It’s great to have a vision for where your membership site is headed, but at the earliest stages you’ll help yourself tremendously by considering what the initial “core” product is that you’ll charge membership fees for. Maybe it’s video tutorials hosted on your website. Maybe it’s access to your online community.
Whatever your answer, you'll help yourself in the long run by starting small and focusing on selling memberships for your core product first. You’ll be much more successful in folding in additional products, services, and events when you can sell these to your pre-existing members!
Once you’ve identified what you want to build and what your core product will be, you’re ready to start evaluating membership management software. But what exactly is membership software?
At a high level, all membership software products offer three key features:
This is simply the ability to sign up new members and accept membership payments from them.
Questions to ask when evaluating sign up and payments features:
After members sign up, they’ll need a way to login to your site to access your content, community, or products. This is often called “authentication.”
Questions to ask when evaluating login features:
All membership software will give you the ability to create “protected content”—this is content that can only be accessed by a member who has logged in successfully and who has the appropriate membership level required to access your content.
Questions to ask when evaluating content protection features:
The features mentioned above are generally universal, although there are some nuances between them. All of the products outlined below will offer these features.
I recommend the following membership software products consistently. You’re in good hands with any of the companies on this list. Here’s a quick intro to each and the primary reasons why I recommend each product.
Outseta is an all-in-one tech stack for building a membership business. There are two major points of differentiation between Outseta and the other products on this list. First, we support both individual and team based memberships. Team based memberships are pretty unique to Outseta—you can sell memberships to companies where multiple users share a membership (each with their own login credentials). With individual memberships, each individual member is required to pay their own membership fees. The ability to support teams is often important.
Second, the all-in-one nature of our product means that we offer a series of tools to not just launch a membership site, but also to help you grow your member base and revenue. This includes a CRM to manage your members, as well as email marketing, help desk, and reporting tools. The end result? You can manage and grow your member base from within a single tool without needing to buy and integrate a bunch of different software tools.
Memberstack is one of the best known membership software products out there and is particularly popular in the Webflow community. One thing I really like about Memberstack is that you can design your own sign up and login forms, then use Memberstack's member attributes to allow members to sign up and login via your own forms. This gives you complete control over the design of the forms that members interact with. Memberstack also supports weekly memberships, a nice feature if you require shorter length membership terms.
Memberspace is another great option, and was born specifically out of a need for tools to better manage membership sites on Squarespace. Among the options on this list, they have a particularly nice suite of content protection tools so you can offer “teaser” type content effectively.
Memberful is also a really nice product—they’ve built a number of really useful Single Sign On (SSO) integrations with platforms like Tribe.so, Circle.so, and Discord so that users can login to these platforms seamlessly after paying their membership fees. They also support both Google and Apple Pay as payment methods.
Pico hails itself as the “operating system for creators” and serves as a central place for your member data while offering a lot of nice integration options with other software products that will be useful in growing your business. They offer some nice features specifically for sites that want to accept donations or allow people to purchase and “gift” a membership to someone else.
A growing number of website builders—including Webflow and Squarespace—have started offering their own membership features. If you’re intending to build your website on one of these builders, it’s absolutely worth evaluating their own membership software tools as well. These product offerings are newer and won’t offer the same depth of features as the other products on this list, but they’ll allow you to further build out your site with the website building tool that you are already using. Generally speaking, having fewer tools to integrate is a good thing as your site will have less technical complexity.
Most membership software products utilize a similar pricing model, although the actual fees between each product vary widely. Most pricing is based off of:
Some questions to ask when evaluating the pricing for membership software:
This last question is particularly important. Most membership software providers leverage Stripe as a payment gateway—think of a payment gateway as the plumbing through which your payments are actually processed. Payments processed with Stripe will be subject to Stripe’s 2.9% transaction fees. Find out whether Stripe’s fees are included in the advertised payment processing fees.
For example, Outseta charges a 1% fee on successfully processed payments in addition to Stripe’s 2.9% fee. That means the total fee is 3.9% for each successfully processed payment.
It’s common that companies advertise fees that don’t include Stripe’s fees, so if a 3% fee is advertised you might end up paying up to 5.9% if Stripe fees aren’t included (3% to the membership software provider and 2.9% to Stripe). Ask each vendor for a breakdown of all total fees you can expect to pay on payment processing.
Choosing a membership software platform is only half the battle—you’re going to need additional tools and features to build a thriving membership business.
If you're building a membership site, chances are your going to use a website builder in some capacity. Your website might be how you actually deliver your content, or it may simply be a marketing website where users can sign up and pay for their membership, but you deliver your content, product, or community by some other means. In either case, the website builders that I commonly recommend are:
Webflow is the best website builder on the market in my opinion—it’s powerful, it’s flexible, and it won’t limit you in any way. That said, it can be very intimidating for less technical users and is the most expensive website builder on this list.
Squarespace isn’t as feature rich as Webflow, but is significantly easier to use for less technical users. It’s a great place to start—the learning curve won’t hold you back for long.
Card is absolutely amazing for building simple websites and the price is absurdly good—for $19 per year you can build up to 10 websites! If you frequently have new ideas for membership sites, it’s just so easy to quickly spin them up with Carrd.
Tribe.so, Circle.so, and Discord are the online community platforms that I often recommend to people looking to build an online community.
Tribe is most often used by companies that want to build a community around their product. It’s super customizable, the user interface is really nice, and users tend to love it.
Circle is particularly popular with creators and is a fantastic tool to use to launch your first membership community. Circle offers their own payment tools that are worth evaluating.
Discord communities are booming! Discord is for fast paced, action packed communities—many users find it overwhelming, while others love the energy found within Discord communities. It feels much more like a chat room, much less like a forum.
While launching a membership site may be the task immediately in front of you, just adding payments, login forms, and protected content to your site isn’t going to magically grow your membership site’s revenue. Inevitably you’ll need other tools to help you sign up more members, communicate with them, support them, and ultimately grow your business. Here are other tools that most membership sites require.
CRM stands for customer relationship management—it’s a centralized place to store all of your member data. While most membership software providers offer “member records,” these tend to be quite basic and contain little more than the member's name and the membership plan they are currently on. A true CRM will be much more customizable, and will help you effectively track your interactions with each member over the course of your relationship with them. Best in class CRM systems will also allow you to upgrade, downgrade, cancel and issue refunds directly from a member’s CRM record.
If you’re running any sort of membership site, you’ll absolutely need email marketing tools to communicate with your members. This could be sending email broadcasts to inform your members of important updates, or automated email sequences to onboard new members.
What if you want to send an email campaign to all of your “Premium” members, but not your “Basic” members? These types of scenarios most often require integrating an email marketing tool with your membership software.
Recurring revenue businesses grow fast when they are able to retain their members, rather than constantly needing to sign up new ones. Help desk tools allow to support your customer base and build long lasting, mutually beneficial relationships with our customers.
A support ticketing system gives you a shared inbox where all of your incoming customer service requests are routed. This can be hugely beneficial if you have multiple team members, or just to make sure requests for help and questions from members don’t get lost in your personal email inbox.
A knowledge base provides a place for you to publish searchable how-to content and other information specific to your member base. This can be really useful in delivering important resources to new members, making them less reliant on reaching out to you directly with questions.
Live chat tools can also be really nice when integrated with your membership site. Chat tools allow you to field questions from new prospective members on your website, or provide timely support to your existing members who are actively engaging with your membership site content. Chat based tools are typically less useful in the context of membership communities, where much of the interaction is already chat based.
For many types of membership sites, nothing is more important that knowing how members are actually interacting with your content. Which articles are getting read, or which videos are getting watched? How are your members spending their time interacting with your site? User engagement tracking helps you understand your members' behaviors so you can engage with them more effectively and help them get the most out of their membership fees. It can also help you identify at-risk members who are more likely to cancel.
You’ve launched your membership site, you’re growing, now you need to report on your performance. It’s worth assessing what sort of reporting options your membership software includes—oftentimes reporting is also provided in a payment gateway like Stripe or third party tools like Baremetrics, Profitwell, or ChartMogul.
If you’ve made it this far, you’ve got a lot to consider—but you already have a huge leg up in terms of the products required to bring your membership site to life and the questions to ask as an informed buyer. If you need some more help along the way, I recommend the resources below.
This course will teach you to build a membership site using several of the technologies mentioned in this post.
Glenn McWhinney, founder of TheFlow.Agency, offers a wonderful eBook that will walk you through building a membership site on Webflow specifically.
IndieHackers offers a group focused specifically on membership sites. It’s a good resource for learning from other builders.
If you’re ready to get started and want to build your membership site with Outseta, we’ve offer integration guides for the complimentary products mentioned in this article and more. You’ll also find links to demo sites built on each of these platforms—feel free to sign up and login to each to experience these sites as a member would!
Webflow Demo Site: https://outseta-demo.webflow.io/
Carrd Demo Site: https://outseta-demo.carrd.co/
Wordpress Demo Site: https://outseta.wpcomstaging.com/
Typedream Demo Site: https://typedream.site/copper-hyena-9663
Tribe Demo Community: https://outseta.tribeplatform.com/
Circle Demo Community: https://outseta.circle.so/
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