11 Tips and Tools for Starting a Profitable Membership Site

11 Tips and Tools for Starting a Profitable Membership Site

How does earning a regular income and a bunch of loyal customers sound?

Monetizing your website or blog is kind of a big deal. After all, it’s the one thing you can do to elevate your site from a hobby or an accompaniment to your business to a full-fledged revenue stream. But how you go about monetization varies.

Advertising is one approach, of course. Becoming an affiliate is another. And then there’s the content gateway or membership site.

Setting up a content gateway or membership platform that sells exclusive content gives you a unique edge. It allows you to appeal to a specific subset of your audience—the diehards. It helps you parse out who’s a fanatic and who is merely interested. Building a membership site is about so much more than building revenue from subscriptions.

We’re going to talk about everything related to content gateways today, from definitions to how they work to how they’re used. Then we’ll discuss some of your options for setting up a membership site.

So What’s a Content Gateway?

A content gateway is essentially a barrier between your site visitors and some of your content. In some cases, you might merely request an email address in return for access to your content. In others, however, you might ask for a membership fee. How you approach it is up to you, but the concept of the gateway as barrier applies across the board.

Content gateways are used all across the web to create exclusivity. Offering “exclusive” content can help to drive interest in your site as well as your products or services. It can also make those who decide to become members feel more valued, especially if you consistently provide excellent content for them to use. After all, your members are a part of a club—not everyone has access to the same content as they do. It’s a great way to build brand loyalty, too.

And How Do Content Gateways Work?

At their core, content gateways work much like any other sign up process you might implement on your site. For instance, requesting visitors input their email addresses to sign up for your newsletter and offering a free downloadable guide is a form of a content gateway. The content is behind a “gate” (the signup form).

But when most people refer to content gateways, they’re talking about full-fledged membership sites. Those that ask that visitors input their personal information and commit to paying a set fee on a recurring basis for access to exclusive content. That’s what typically describes a content gateway. And how they function has a lot to do with how it’s set up and it’s overarching purpose.

Let’s take a look at a couple of possible scenarios. These are adapted from a list created by Tim Conley, the man behind several popular business podcasts:

1. Offer a Free Download

As I already mentioned, the free downloadable is a great way to encourage site visitors to pony up their email addresses. You can give those who sign up to a newsletter or forum a one-time freebie or a recurring freebie, depending on what you’d like to accomplish.

Because who doesn't like stuff for free?
Because who doesn’t like stuff for free?

2. Offer Premium Downloads

Like we do! With this model, members pay a monthly or annual subscription fee for access to downloadable things besides articles, videos, or podcasts. In the case of our service, members get plugins and themes, but the sky’s the limit in terms of what you can offer here.

Our own membership site offers premium downloads.
Our own membership site offers premium downloads.

3. A Publication or Periodical

By creating an online publication, you can charge visitors a subscription fee for access to regular, exclusive content. Members also get access to archived content. An example? The New York Times. They offer visitors the opportunity to read 10 articles for free each month. After that, they have to pony up for a subscription.

The New York Times is a classic example of a subscription-based online periodical.
The New York Times is a classic example of a subscription-based online periodical.

4. Online Courses

Site visitors pay a monthly or annual fee for access to lessons in an online course on a niche topic.

You can drip the content out slowly or publish it all at once behind the content gateway and allow members to go through the material at their own pace.

Maybe you're setting up a membership site for online courses?
Maybe you’re setting up a membership site for online courses?

5. E-Courses

This is very similar to the online course but the content is instead directly delivered to the subscriber’s inbox.

6. Full-Fledged Membership Site

This is similar to the publication and online course types above, but also allows members to interact with one another. So in addition it might have a forum that’s exclusive to members. This is a great way to create a premium-level community where members can get together and discuss your content – and perhaps even contribute to it!

Reddit is just one example of a full-fledged, interactive membership site.
Reddit is just one example of a full-fledged, interactive membership site.

Membership Sites With Content Gateways That Work

Before we start talking about plugin solutions for adding content gateways to WordPress, maybe you need a little creative inspiration? If so, here are a few ideas/examples of how membership sites can be used to drive site traffic and build community.


Copyblogger: Copywriting advice for bloggers and online marketers.
Copyblogger: Copywriting advice for bloggers and online marketers.

Copyblogger is probably one of my favorite membership sites because it’s so focused, so aesthetically pleasing, and overflowing with useful content.

Copyblogger’s main membership component is called Authority and is designed to help you learn how to become a content marketing expert. A membership that costs “about a dollar a day” will get you access to exclusive seminars, videos, guides, an affiliate program, Q&A sessions, a forum, discounts on training events, and more.

What makes this site so successful? It touts a slew of professional marketers as instructors, offers a library of over 200 videos to members, and includes a 30-day risk-free trial.


Lynda: Learn software, creative, and business skills to achieve your personal and professional goals.
Lynda: Learn software, creative, and business skills to achieve your personal and professional goals.

The online instruction site lynda.com has sort of become a force to be reckoned with. It currently hosts over 3,800 video courses in numerous subjects in the categories of Developer, Design, Web, Photography, Business, Education, 3D + Animation, Video, and Audio + Music. Members can set the pace however they’d like and can even create course playlists to better plan their individual curricula.

They claim to have trained more than 4 million people, which yeah, is pretty dang impressive if you ask me. The company offers multiple plans but all offer access to the entire library of videos.

Revolution Golf

Revolution Golf: HD quality video lessons delivered daily from top rated tour level golf coaches on every aspect of the game.
Revolution Golf: HD quality video lessons delivered daily from top rated tour level golf coaches on every aspect of the game.

Another good example of a successful membership site is Revolution Golf. This niche site offers videos of different swing techniques for avid golfers. They offer numerous free videos that anyone can access after signing up but RG Premium members get a personalized video library, free shipping on golf products, invitations to live events, and more.

The site is in a niche subject but it appeals perfectly to its target audience, making it a total success.

Know Your Options: Membership Plugins Worth Checking Out

If adding a membership portal to your site sounds like just the thing your business has been missing, here are some membership plugins that will help you get one step closer to your goals:

Free Membership Plugins

If you have huge plans but a minuscule budget, check out our comprehensive list of free membership plugins.

Premium Membership Plugins

Although there is no shame in starting a membership site with a free plugin, if you need premium support, consider using a premium plugin.

The plugins below are inexpensive and offer premium support:

  • Ultimate Membership Pro WordPress Plugin

    A premium plugin worth checking out is called Ultimate Membership Pro and it lets you set up multi-level access for your site users by allowing you to offer free and paid packages. Protect all of your content or just part of it depending on your site goals.

    With this plugin, you can protect all the standard types of content you’d expect from a membership plugin plus it comes with login and register templates, menu protection, integration with 9 email marketing platforms, Visual Composer integration, dashboard stats, and more.

    You can expect to pay $27 for Ultimate Membership Pro.

    Interested in Ultimate Membership Pro WordPress Plugin?

  • MemberPress

    Another popular premium choice is MemberPress. This plugin is easy to install and once configured can be used to charge access to your content. You can also use it to track and manage your site’s members and subscriptions, offer digital downloads, or to offer a content gateway on posts, pages, tags, categories, feeds, forums, and more.

    This plugin promises to integrate fully into the WordPress dashboard and includes many helpful features for setting up a robust membership site. Pricing for MemberPress starts at $99 per year.

  • Restrict Content Pro

    Restrict Content Pro is a premium plugin option that provides a full content management tool for WordPress. With it, you can create an unlimited number of membership levels, track payments, and offer discounts all from within the WordPress dashboard.

    Setup is incredibly simple and you can easily manage your members’ accounts using the included tracking system. You can add expiration dates to subscription packages, and add custom info for each subscription level, their duration, and pricing. Several payment gateways are integrated, including PayPal, Stripe, and Braintree.

    Other features include promotional discounts, reports, and the ability to export data as a CSV. Restrict Content Pro costs $42 for a single site, $86 for 2-5 sites, and $132 for unlimited sites.

    Interested in Restrict Content Pro?

  • Paid Memberships Pro

    Paid Memberships Pro is a useful plugin for managing professional organizations that have a lot of members. It allows for customizing the registration process, setting up recurring dues, and providing extra value to members of your community.

    It can also be used for managing an e-learning experience, offering drip-feed content, downloadables, forums, and more. You can even setup subscriptions for on-demand video. This plugin is free but if you want access to support, forums, themes, and add-ons, you need to pony up the cash for a PMPro Core membership for $97 per year.

    Interested in Paid Memberships Pro?

  • Good LMS

    If your aim is to build an education site, you can do so with Good LMS. This learning management plugin is ideal for creating courses to monetize online. Several payment methods are accepted including PayPal, Paymill, Authorize.net, and Stripe, and the plugin allows you to setup courses, manage students, coursework, and more, all from within the dashboard.

    A regular license for this straightforward plugin costs $31.

  • PrivateContent

    PrivateContent is another plugin solution that offers a multilevel login to your users. You can add private areas, private pages, and a whole host of user management tools. Some of the features include content protection, a one-click website lock, user organization tools, private user pages, a form skin builder, and more.

    It also includes a public API, plugin extensions, support tickets, and WPML compatibility. PrivateContent costs $19.

    Interested in PrivateContent?

  • Member Mouse

    The last plugin I’ll share here today is called MemberMouse. It’s a simple tool that makes it straightforward to setup a membership site. With it, you can sell products, subscriptions, and memberships with ease. It can also be used to offer single click upsells and for creating a password-protected member’s area.

    Other features of MemberMouse include customer management, customer service, metrics tracking, and more. A starter plan costs $19.95 per month, advanced is $99 per month, and the premium plan costs $299 per month.

A Few Tips for Maximizing the Effectiveness of Your Membership Site

Before we go our separate ways, here are a few parting tips for making the most of any membership sites you build.

Get Familiar With Your Members

According to Copyblogger, it’s a good idea to keep tabs on where your members are at regularly.

This means holding webinars where you can interact one-on-one with your members or even setting up a special chatroom with live hours when members can get in touch with you for immediate feedback.

Include a Forum

If a forum wasn’t a part of the foundation of your membership site to start with, now’s the time to add it.

They offer an excellent way for you to find out what your members want and allow members to interact with one another on a regular basis. It fosters an environment of collaboration and working together toward a common goal—both of which encourage members to come back time and time again.

Give Your Members a Challenge

This applies particularly to membership sites that include an online course component. Many online courses can be completed at your own pace, which is great for those with hectic schedules. However, sometimes members need a nudge to actually follow through with their coursework.

You can give them this nudge by starting a challenge one month. It could be to get through X number of lessons or to complete a specific task each day.

Solicit (and Use) Feedback

I’ve already mentioned how important it is to listen to your members but I’m going to reiterate again here: you need to pay attention to what your members want. The idea here is to bring in members for the long haul, so if you’re not providing great content that resonates with them, you’re going to see your member base fall off a cliff. To prevent this, ask your members regularly what they’d like to see more of and actually put their advice into practice.

Offer a Startup Guide

Once your membership site has been going for a while, it’s going to contain a lot of content. And while this is awesome for your existing members who’ve been there since day one, it can be a bit daunting for those just getting started. So don’t let them get lost in the shuffle. Write up a quick start guide for new members and make sure it’s the first thing you offer to them post-signup.

Provide Discounts

It can be a great promotional tactic to offer membership discounts on a semi-regular basis. This can help to push those who’ve been considering a membership for some time to actually subscribe.

Maintain Quality and Consistency

While it’s okay to change things up sometimes (and even encouraged) you need to maintain a general publication schedule. You also need to make sure the quality of what you publish remains consistent. People subscribed because they liked the quality of what you produced. Slacking on that is like reneging on a deal. Don’t do it.

Wrapping Up

Content gateways or membership sites can be incredibly powerful. They’re a great way to build a revenue stream for your site by simply doing more of what you already do—produce content. While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution that works in every case, Following the tips above and taking a gander at some of the tools ought to serve you well.

Image credit: Howard Lake 

Do you run a membership site? What tools do you use to manage it? What advice did I miss? Please sound off below. 
Brenda Barron
Brenda Barron Brenda Barron is a freelance writer from Southern California. She specializes in WordPress, tech, business and founded WP Theme Roundups. When not writing all the things, she's spending time with her family.