WordPress membership websites vs closed membership platforms: Which is better?

Membership Website
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Since you are here, you’re probably working on a cunning plan to win the internet with your soon-to-be-created membership site, right? Perhaps your goal is to create top-notch content you’ll share only with those who are ready to put some of their money into it? Or, you’re thinking about building an online community of like-minded individuals from across the globe and sharing ingenious ideas? Or, you intend to mix and match these two and get the best of both worlds by offering both free and paid content to different member groups?

Regardless of your motivation, there are more than plenty of reasons for starting your own membership business. To begin with, a membership site has all the potential to turn into a reliable source of recurring revenue if you can produce premium content that’ll bring in steady subscription revenue each month.

Also, a membership site can open many marketing opportunities for your new or old business, help you find your creative outlet, intensify the impact of your message, let you showcase your skills, build an authority in your field, and create your online clan. However, to start enjoying the benefits of having a membership site, you’ll have to create one first, and there are a few ways to approach this challenge.

The simplest one is to utilize one of the proprietary membership platforms, but since these don’t come cheap they might not be a likely option for those who are just starting out. On the other side, there are superb open source software solutions such as WordPress, but they are slightly geared towards tech-savvy users which might scare off those who aren’t. So, let’s look at both of these solutions and see which one might be right for you and your membership business.  

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Main similarities and differences

When it comes to membership site development, there are two paths you can take: a closed proprietary end-to-end platform or an open-source solution. While the terms “membership platform” and “membership site builder” are sometimes used interchangeably to describe the same tool, they aren’t exactly the same.

A membership site builder is a sort of solution that’ll offer a set of tools you’ll need to build a competent membership site, but it won’t include other services that are crucial for having a site, such as domain name registration and web hosting services. To get those services, you’ll have to purchase them separately or choose a membership platform instead of a website builder.

Also, we should mention that these types of proprietary solutions are considered mostly closed, meaning they’re part of a closed software ecosystem where the service provider has complete control over applications, content, and standards. In contrast, open-source software is a solution whose source code can be inspected, modified, and improved by anyone who possesses the knowledge to do so. Likewise, WordPress, as a prime specimen of open-source site-creating software, is a case in point of open collaboration where any capable user can become one of its contributors.

While all of these solutions share a purpose and that’s making the site-creating process as simple as possible, they differ in terms of functionality, user-friendliness, and customizability. So, before choosing the most suitable solution for your membership business, take a step back and consider your budget, your needs, and your desires.   

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Short-term and long-term cost

When it comes to upfront costs, WordPress, as an open-source platform, appears to be much more affordable. You’ll also get access to free plugins, themes, and templates that can be customized with coding skills. Even if you add a custom domain and web hosting services to the equation the result is the same: an opportunity to create a competent membership site for next to nothing with WordPress.

However, the downside of using an open-source platform is that their free plugin library might not cut it for an ambitious site. If your needs and desires exceed what WordPress has to offer for free, you’ll end up paying for more powerful features, and the overall cost can add up quickly. We should note that the more tech-savvy you are, the more money you can save.

The upfront cost of choosing a closed platform is considerably higher (whether you pay on a monthly or an annual basis), but it often includes charges for a complete set of features you wouldn’t get with WordPress (such as analytics, unlimited membership levels, and multiple payment gateways).

Although a closed platform now might seem cheaper in the long run, there are additional costs you need to take into account as well, such as transaction fees or the cost of acquiring new members.

For instance, with Wild Apricot’s free membership plan, you can collect up to 50 contacts (which can be an actual member, an event attendee, a donor, a newsletter subscriber, or a combination of these), but as soon as you cross this limit you’ll have to upgrade to a paid plan costing you $48.00 per month at a minimum. Also, the more subscriptions you get, the more powerful (and pricier) plan you're going to need.

Initial steps and ease of use

While open-source platforms are sometimes complicated to install and set up since they require some technical know-how, with WordPress you can get away with little to no coding skills. However, you’ll still have to take care of domain registration, a web hosting service, downloading WordPress, finding the right plugins (perhaps something like MemberPress, LearnDash, or S2Member), and building your site pretty much from scratch. You can get help from a web designer or developer, but hiring them will cost a pretty penny.

On the other hand, starting out with a closed platform is close to effortless. After you purchase the service, your membership site can be set up and ready to conquer the world in a couple of hours, provided that you’ve previously prepared the content. With most proprietary membership platforms, you can expect to get a full set of features including a simple set-up wizard, a drag-and-drop site builder, ready-made themes and templates, an email blast system, built-in integration with popular payment gateways (like PayPal, Stripe, and Braintree), in-depth analytics reports, and more.

To sum it all up, with WordPress you’ll have to do the heavy lifting, while a closed platform will do it for you.

Customer support channels

The price you’ll pay for keeping the cost low with WordPress is the lack of professional support channels such as a phone line, live chat, and a ticketing system. Without this sort of comprehensive round-the-clock support system, users have no other option but to fall back upon online resources like a community forum, a knowledge base, and various video guides. However, this isn’t as bad as it might sound at first. Being an open-source content management system (CMS), WordPress is supported by its enthusiastic community of dedicated developers, web designers, and all sorts of content creators who are shaping it into one of the most customizable, scalable, and creative site-building tools in the industry.

Meanwhile, most closed membership platforms are celebrated for their superb customer support you can also catch sight of before purchasing a plan. Unless you choose an entry-level plan (which might bring on basic support), with a closed platform you shouldn’t get anything less than a phone line available during work hours, a 24/7 live chat, and a thorough knowledgebase with step-by-step guides.

Also, with closed platforms, the service provider’s IT team takes care of all the upgrades and patches to make sure that your membership site stays up-to-date, while with WordPress you’ll have to handle it on your own.

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Level of customization and scalability

While making sure that your membership is fully functional and easy to operate, you’ll probably want it to stand out among its competitors as well, and the simplest way to do this is by polishing up the way it looks and feels. Whether you’re using WordPress or a closed membership platform, you should ensure there are enough eye-catching templates, themes, and customization choices.

The sky's the limit with WordPress when it comes to customizing and shaping the design of your site to fit your imagination. The only bad news is that non-techies might be out of their depth here since in-depth customization calls for some HTML and CSS skills.

In the meantime, membership platforms aren’t overly customizable at their core, but the best among them (such as Thinkific, Teachable, and Kajabi) will provide plenty of choices for casting the site’s appearance without a hitch to boot. Not to mention that all the main membership-related apps that’ll allow you to create and grow your community are at your fingertips.

However, since users of closed platforms aren’t allowed access to the source code, the capabilities of customizing features, plugins, and themes are cut down. So, if you possess technical skills, time for regular updates, and a will to turn your dream membership site into reality, then WordPress is the right choice.

Also, although closed membership platforms make it simple to scale up or down, with a WordPress site you won’t be charged more for growing your membership.  

Types of marketing tools

So, now that you’ve created your own membership money-making machine crammed with marvelous content and attractive membership levels you could be forgiven for thinking that your job is over. The truth is, you won’t be making any money whatsoever without members that will add fuel to your membership machinery. Fortunately, WordPress and most closed membership platforms provide plenty of built-in marketing tools you’ll want to use to attract your audience and turn them into loyal members.

With a closed platform, you can expect to get search engine optimization (SEO) tools that'll make your site show up higher on Google and other search engines making it more visible to your potential members. Also, expect advanced analytics and data reporting, both of which will help you keep track of everything on your site and fix what needs to be fixed.

While this isn’t the truth for all open-source platforms, WordPress is SEO optimized by default. But, if you throw in an SEO-friendly theme and purchase one of the SEO plugins WordPress has to offer, you won’t only master the SEO but win the world wide web like there’s nothing to it. In addition to SEO, WordPress offers a wide variety of plugins made to make mastering marketing feel like a walk in the park (such as OptinMonster, PushEngage, and MonsterInsights), so feel free to check them all out.

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Solving the security challenges 

If you are going to succeed in the membership industry, you have to make sure that the security, safety, and stability of your site are your priorities right from the start. There’s a common misconception that all open-source software is low on security and high on inviting all sorts of cyber threats such as cunning cybercriminals, heinous hackers, and malicious malware to wiggle into your site. However, this is not the case with WordPress.

Although like with other open-source software you’ll have to be a bit more diligent with your security, there are plenty of WordPress security plugins to choose from, some of them come at no charge. So, to safeguard your WordPress site you’ll want to create a strong password, install an SSL certificate, keep all your plugins up-to-date, add a web application firewall, and keep away from suspicious sites.

Also, although WordPress is considered to be more vulnerable to cyber threats since its source code can be viewed, shared, and modified by its cooperating community it can also be fixed, upgraded, and tested before being released to the tech society.

In contrast, while closed platforms are fully packed with security features, if something breaks down no one besides its service providers can fix it. The only thing you can do is send a request to the tech team and wait for their reply.

That’s why solving security problems with closed platforms can take forever in comparison to WordPress. However, in its defense, there is less chance something will go wrong with a closed platform to begin with.

Which one is a better choice for your membership site?

Opting between any closed membership platform and the most popular open-source software in tech history is a hard choice to make. Comparing these two options side-by-side only makes sense if you take into consideration your objective, budget, and resources at your disposal. So, since there’s no cut-and-dry answer, let’s make this as simple as it gets.

If you value open-source over closed code, customizability over stability, and being part of a colorful support community over customary support channels, then WordPress is the way to go. If the opposite is true, then your membership site should find its forever home with a closed membership platform.

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.