Membership website builders vs membership platforms: What's the difference?

Membership Website
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Since you’re here, chances are that you’ve heard something about membership business gaining momentum and more and more creative people across the world starting their membership sites and making stacks of money. Knowing better than to believe everything you see on the internet, you’re surely somewhat skeptical yet intrigued by this trend.  

There are plenty of reasons why you’d want to start a membership business, such as having a reliable and recurring source of revenue, building an online community centered around your content, and becoming a respected source of information. You can create paid online courses, provide premium community forums, host a webinar, or pour your creativity into something else people are willing to pay for. However, before starting with any of this, you’ll first have to create an attractive and fully functional membership site.

While building your first membership site can seem daunting at first, there are a variety of tools and services out there whose main objective is to make the site-building process as simple as possible.

Besides membership plugins for WordPress, the most popular solutions are membership website builders and membership platforms, both of which we’ll look closely at in the following sections.

Main similarities and differences

Since they serve the same purpose, the terms “membership site builder” and “membership platform” are sometimes used interchangeably to describe the same kind of solution. However, they aren’t exactly the same. While both will supply you with all the tools you’ll need to build a successful membership site, platforms will move beyond that and offer a more compressive service - but get ready to pay a tidy sum for it.

So, before choosing one solution over the other you should have an idea of how your membership site should be (both in terms of appearance and functionality), how much time you have at your disposal, and what amount of money you are willing to put into it.

Not all membership site builders are created equal. Some are built from square one with membership in mind (such as WildApricot, Mighty Networks, and Kajabi) while with others a membership functionality came as an afterthought (like with Wix, Weebly, and Squarespace). Nevertheless, all of them can be a piece of service that a membership platform provides, but it can never be the other way around.   

This is because a membership platform acts as an end-to-end software solution for all sorts of membership models and businesses. It can supply its users with all the essentials (including all features of a membership site builder), but also additional services (such as web hosting, web design or site management), a grand level of flexibility, data analytics and reporting, available app store, marketing tools, plenty of payment gateways, strong security, and round-the-clock customer support.

A membership site builder has no obligation to supply you with all of the above, so if you’re still hoping to get everything by paying for a website builder, don't get your hopes up.

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With a higher level of complexity comes a higher price tag, and this is true for membership site-building solutions. While site builders can come as an extra element of other services (like Gator Builder with HostGator’s web hosting packages), to get hold of a membership platform you’ll have to land a few blows to your budget.

Also, if you’re at least somewhat tech-savvy (or aspire to be), you can use free, open-source site-building software (such as WordPress) and download a proper membership plugin (for instance, MemberPress). However, although open source software is free-of-charge, to upgrade your site to a membership one (or build it like one from scratch) you’ll have to purchase a membership plugin, some of which can get pretty pricey.

Although most membership platforms come with pocket-friendly, entry-level price tags, offer free trials and money-back guarantees, the downsides vary from additional setup fees, price hikes upon renewal, costly add-ons, and pricey transaction fees, all the way to the time you’ll need to spend in setting up your site and tweaking it to perfection.

So, if this is to be your first membership site (or you only want a budget-friendly solution) and you want to start making money as soon as possible, then a site builder might be a smarter choice. If you have both time and money (and don’t mind spending it), a platform is the right thing for you.    

Functionality and usability

In terms of ease of use, both membership site builders and platforms are likely to employ a beginner-friendly approach. However, they differ in terms of functionality. Yes, both solutions focus on supplying a toolkit to ensure your site-building experience goes smoothly, but the platforms go beyond building a site, gating members-only content, creating multiple membership levels, adding members, managing events, and processing payments.

However, as hinted in the chapter above, while membership platforms are likely to include web hosting services (and domain name registrations), this isn’t a strict, apply-to-all rule. So, they can be divided into hosted and self-hosted platforms - that is, those that will take care of hosting for you, or those that’ll expect you to find your own solution.

Also, many platforms don’t offer their own web hosting services but will rather deliver them through a third-party provider. Let’s take Wild Apricot as an example, which hosts its customers’ websites (as well as membership applications) through Amazon Web Services (AWS). So, when choosing a membership platform make sure to check how reliable their hosting services are and who the provider is.

In addition to site-building software and web hosting service, with most membership platforms you can expect to get an app store, third-party app integrations, extensions, lots of membership widgets, site optimization tools, and additional services such as web design.

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Level of customization

While membership site builders and platforms tend to be equally easy to use, open-source CMS (like WordPress) provide a more powerful toolkit for those who want to customize their sites any way they wish to. These also have booming online communities of third-party creators that are building new plugins, making new extensions, and creating new themes and templates.

Most site builders and platforms offer a certain level of flexibility, but, since everything is under their control and resistant to changes from third-party apps, they can never reach the levels of customization you’ll get with an open-source CMS. However, platforms usually offer more customization than site builders.

In addition to having plenty of ready-made themes and templates, you can go with more advanced customization by being able to tweak these to your liking, as well as to add different modules, plugins, add-on applications, and features, all of which you should find with a better-known membership platform. However, don’t expect most of these to come without an additional price tag.

Also, if you’d rather find a perfect, professional-looking theme and use it as it is rather than change little things about it, with a platform you can expect to find a wider variety of themes than with a site builder. While different platforms will come with different features, they often offer more options and are superior to site builders when it comes to customization.

Membership features 

Given that your goal is to create a stunning yet fully functional site that’ll bring in new users and turn them into loyal members of your community, you’ll have to consider the membership features that each of these solutions has to offer. Some of them provide only a bare-bones design platform while others come feature-packed with all the essential tools for building a site at your fingertips.

So, before you begin the search for the best solution for your soon-to-be-created membership site, make sure that the following features are included. 

First of all, a membership site can’t go without members-only content (courses, live webinars, community forums, you name it) and a members-only area, which is where gated content and other member features are gathered. Also, there’s no membership without a membership application form, multiple membership levels (preferably unlimited), an online payment processing system, and plenty of payment gateways (if you intend to make money, that is).

Without membership management software, managing all aspects of your site could be harder than it should be, so make sure there is one that can integrate well with your site.

Besides the bare minimum, you’ll also want your site to include some form of information available to all users (like an about section, membership information, and an official blog), integration with social media platforms, automated workflows (at least for sending welcome and renewal emails), engagement analytics tools, and (if you’re using an open-source solution) third-party integrations.

Fortunately, almost all popular membership builders and platforms should cover the majority of these, although you can expect a bit more from a platform.

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Marketing tools

While having a well-polished, highly professional membership site is a crucial aspect of any masterful digital marketing strategy, you’ll probably want to include a couple of handy tools as well.

However, before beginning to promote your site, you might want to optimize it for search engines (mainly Google) and improve its ranking. Thankfully, most membership platforms include some on-page and off-page SEO tools as a part of their service. You can even purchase a suite of SEO tools with some site builders as well.

With top-rated membership platforms you can also utilize marketing tools and opportunities such as membership relationship management software, email and social media marketing, affiliate and influencer marketing, having an official blog and active online presence, investing in paid advertising, and so forth.

On the other hand, with most popular website builders optimized for membership (but not created with ecommerce in mind) you can expect to get some email marketing tools, mobile-responsive themes and templates, some SEO tools, and that’s about it.

Strong cybersecurity 

If you’re going to make the grade in the membership business, you must make sure your site is protected from all sorts of cybercriminals and that your customers’ data is safe and secure.   

If you’re using a site builder, make sure that your web hosting provider has a rock-solid reputation and that they stand strong on security with DDoS protection, anti-malware, spam filter, domain privacy, firewalls, automated data backups, and an SSL certificate. Also, when choosing for a future site, be sure to check what security features are included in the package.

It’s critical to ensure your site is PCI compliant, that it owns some fraud-prevention software, does regular backups, keeps up with security trends, updates its software, and that you never overrate its overall security.

Not surprisingly, you can hope to get much more security features with a membership platform (since you’re paying big bucks for it), than with a somewhat simpler site builder. Also, with a platform, you’re putting the security of your site in the hands of a single company (theoretically, at least), while with a site builder you’ll have to worry about multiple service providers.  

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Customer support

It doesn’t matter if this is to be your first membership site (or any sort of site for that matter), or if you already are a skilled membership business owner, sooner or later you’ll find yourself in need of a helping hand. This is where solid customer support should lend you a hand and help you overcome your concerns and solve all challenges while saving you valuable time.

The majority of membership solutions (membership site builders and platforms included) come with how-to guides that are often supplemented with suitable screenshots or videos tutorials. Also, the self-services should include a FAQ section, a knowledgebase, a blog, and a community forum where you can get in touch with fellow users.

However, when it comes to person-to-person professional support channels (like live chat, phone number, and ticketing system), you’re far more likely to get them with a platform. And if one’s already paying a pretty penny, the support staff and technical team are expected to be available day and night.

So, which one should you choose?

Creating a membership site, or adding a membership model to your existing site, is one of the best ways to enrich your users’ experience while making your business boom. Nevertheless, choosing what type of membership solution is best for you can get tricky.

If you already own a site you wish to expand with membership and start with small steps, then a site builder should be enough. However, if you don’t mind spending a hefty sum on an all-in-one membership solution that’ll give you complete control over the site’s design, full set of features, and 24/7/365 customer support, a membership platform should fill the bill.  

Mirza Bahic is a freelance tech journalist and blogger from Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. For the past four years, Mirza has been ghostwriting for a number of tech start-ups from various industries, including cloud, retail and B2B technology.