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:
There are few better ways to build your financial freedom than building a membership site that delivers predictable, recurring revenue.
There’s an overwhelming number of options to consider as you decide how to build your membership site.
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:
I’m only recommending products that I think represent awesome technologies. You’ll be in great hands with any of these products.
This guide focuses entirely on what each of these products does well.
Let’s do it, shall we?
What is a membership site?
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:
The “traditional” membership site with gated content
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 the growth of 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 Bettermode, Circle.so, Discord, or Slack.
Memberships to SaaS products
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.
While all of these product types may feel distinctly different, they all typically rely on a membership management software 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.
What type of membership site should I build?
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:
What expertise do you have that others might be willing to pay for? Consider creating content that highlights this expertise.
Are you a natural facilitator or networker? If that’s you, what sort of community would you be especially good at fostering?
What are you personally interested in? The internet is a big place. What topics would you want to go deep on with other like minded people?
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.
Start by answering the question—what is my “core product?”
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!”
Sound 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!
What is membership management software?
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:
1. Sign up forms and payments
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:
Do you offer individual and team based memberships?
What payment terms to you support (monthly, quarterly, annual, etc)?
How easy is it to customize and add sign up forms to my website?
Can I sell additional products and services to members?
How easy is it for less technical users to run pricing experiments?
2. Login forms / authentication
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:
How do members create login credentials to log in?
What login options do you support? Your site may benefit from email and password, Google authentication, passwordless authentication, or social login options.
How can I track members who haven’t logged in?
Do you offer single sign on (SSO) integrations with the other tools I am considering using?
3. Protected content
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.
Do you offer the ability to protect pages or folders of content based on a member’s membership level?
Do you offer the ability to protect content specific to each member?
Do you offer the ability to show or hide specific elements on a page (a video, a link, a button, etc) based on a member’s membership level?
How is content actually protected? How secure is it?
What sort of content “teaser” features do you offer?
The features mentioned above are generally universal, although there are some nuances between them. All of the products outlined below will offer these features.
What is the best membership management software?
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.
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. Most membership sites start out selling individual memberships, but over time many recognize the opportunity to sell team based memberships to larger organizations. If that sounds like it could be you, team based memberships may be important.
Second, the all-in-one nature of our product means that Outseta offers 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.
If you're building a Webflow membership site, Outseta also offers some cloneable website templates that make it really fast and easy to get started.
Memberstack is one of the best known membership software products out there. 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.
A growing number of website builders—including Webflow and Squarespace—have started offering their own membership features. If you’re building your website on one of these products, it’s worth evaluating their own membership software tools as well.
In the case of both Squarespace and Webflow, their native membership features are newer. These products generally don’t offer the same depth of features as the other products on this list—as least not yet. While that's the case, they 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.
How much does membership software cost?
Most membership software products utilize a similar pricing model, although the actual fees between each product vary widely. Most pricing is based off of:
A monthly or annual subscription fee
A payment processing fee that’s charged on all successfully processed payments
Some questions to ask when evaluating the pricing for membership software:
What’s included in my subscription fees?
What other software products am I going to need that will represent additional costs? How will those products be integrated with my membership software?
What payment gateways work with this software?
What’s the complete breakdown of the payment processing fees that I’ll be charged for each successfully processed payment?
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). Also, the vast majority of membership software providers create subscription "products" in Stripe—this means that they use Stripe Billing under the hood. This is not commonly understood and means that you'll end up paying an additional .5% to .8% per transaction for using Stripe Billing—the devil is in the details.
Ask each vendor for a breakdown of all total fees you can expect to pay on payment processing.
What other tools and features will I need?
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 you're 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.
Online community platforms
Bettermode (formerly Tribe), Circle.so, and Discordare the online community platforms that I often recommend to people looking to build an online community.
Bettermode (formerly Tribe)
Bettermode 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 internet 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.
Other software tools you’ll need
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 your 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.
User Engagement Tracking
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.
Makerpad’s No-Code Fundamentals Course
This course will teach you to build a membership site using several of the technologies mentioned in this post.
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!