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.