How to Build a Membership Site in 48 Hours

So you want to build a membership site huh?

Deciding to do it is the easy part! Once that decision is made there are SO many different factors that go into the actual creation of the site.

Unlike a simple WordPress blog, where you can basically install and go, a membership site has MANY more components.  You need to consider which membership plugin to use, how you’ll handle payments and affiliates, how to layout the site, how to deal with privacy etc.

Bottom line, it can be really daunting.

That said, it doesn’t have to be.  After the success of my post “How to Become an SEO Freelancer in 48 Hours” I figured I would keep the series alive and provide all of the resources you need in order to build out a successful membership site in a weekend.

First off, let’s clarify why I’d be qualified to write such a post.

Last September I launched my first membership site “Overcoming the Fear of Uncertainty“.  This was about as basic as it gets in terms of logistics.  More recently I launched “Location Rebel” which has a much more elaborate sales funnel, multiple pricing tiers, and is generally a much bigger beast – as well as a more advanced product.

So if you’re ready for this, grab a beer, and get comfortable, because we’ve got a lot of ground to cover!

Why Create a Membership Site?

So before you should even do anything, you need to give some thought as to why you are creating a membership site.  There are all sorts of reasons to do it, and just as many ways to go about it.  So let’s look at some of the benefits of this content distribution model so you can get an idea of whether or not this is right for you:

  • Membership sites are the easiest way to create user interaction.  If your goal is to create a closed community of committed people, this is the best way to go about it. You know everyone involved has paid something to get in, so oftentimes they will be more committed than the members of a free/open community.
  • Easy to update. Let’s face it, if you distribute your product as an ebook, it is less complicated, but it also makes it much more difficult to update.  Once it’s done it’s pretty much done, and after a couple years, or even months the content can grow stale and irrelevant.  With a membership site, adding or editing content is no more difficult than creating a blog post.
  • Allows you to distribute your message through more mediums. With a membership site its extremely easy to combine written content, pdf downloads, audio, and video into one product that will appeal to the largest variety of people possible depending on how they want to learn.  If you were to create a zip file with all of this stuff the file would be huge, and people will be more likely to skip over features because it isn’t constantly being put in front of them.
  • Allows you to generate recurring income. One of the most important questions you’ll need to consider is whether or not your site will be a one time fee or a recurring monthly charge.  We’ll talk about the benefits of both, but you can’t charge a monthly fee for an ebook.  This flexibility really makes for an attractive option.
  • The product will keep getting better. The more you allow for user interaction, the more information that’s being created within the site.  This only makes the site more valuable as time goes on.
  • Limited design knowledge. To create an ebook that looks good, you’ve gotta have some design chops.  Unless you want to do it all in Powerpoint…and trust me, you do NOT want to do it all in Powerpoint.  With a membership site, aside from a logo and a few random components you can use a pre-made WordPress theme and keep the designing to an absolute minimum.  This alone could be worth it for many of you.

Those are just a few of the benefits for using a membership site as your distribution model for your next product, but as you can see there is some pretty huge upside.

First Steps

Creating a membership site isn’t something that you just haphazardly throw together.  I mean don’t get me wrong, you could, it just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  The first thing you need to do if you’re serious about creating a membership site is figure out if there’s an audience and a market for your site.

You are going to spend a LOT of hours putting this thing together if you’re serious about doing it right, so you’d better make sure there is a need before you go through all of the trouble of creating it.

You should first look at the size of your current audience.  While it isn’t absolutely necessary to already have an audience to build a membership site, it’s a very, very good idea.  With all of the stuff out there, people are very wary about spending any amount of money on products or memberships.  The larger and more passionate your user base, the easier time you’ll have getting your site off the ground.  The more targeted your new site is to your audience the better.

That said, here are some of the best ways to test your market and see if your idea has some legs:

  • Survey your readers.  I surveyed Location 180 readers a few months ago about what they wanted to see in Location Rebel.  The feedback was incredible.  I learned that there was definitely a market for the site, but more importantly I learned that the thing my audience wanted to see most, wasn’t necessarily what I thought they wanted.  So I was able to take that information and craft a more useful product. The best way to do this is to use a free service like Survey Monkey (recommended) or create your own form in Google Docs.
  • Split Test. If you already have an idea of what the product is going to be about, then consider creating an offer.  Create 2 or 3 sales pages (more on that below) with some different variations. Try different feature sets, different copy, or even different general concepts.  Then use Google Website Optimizer to split test.  This is a fantastic tool that will allow you to show different users different variations of the site allowing you to see which one converts the best, usually judging by email opt ins or people that click through to a fake checkout page.
  • Buy Traffic. Split testing is great and all, but only if you have enough traffic to get the results.  If you’re audience is limited, or you don’t want to tell your audience about your project just yet, consider buying $50-100 of adwords traffic, and seeing how it converts.  If you have a bunch of faux-sales or opt ins, there’s a good chance there’s a big market for your membership site.
  • Keyword Research. I always do some initial keyword research for any product or site I’m considering entering in to.  While this is only a small component of interest, it definitely will help to judge if your idea will be prone to organic search engine traffic. I use Market Samurai for this, and for more information on this process check out How to Become an SEO Freelancer in 48 Hours.

Mapping Out Your Site

Ok, so now you’ve established that there’s a big market for your site. Sweet! But now what?

From there, your best bet is to map out exactly what the product is going to look like.  If you don’t have a clear vision from the beginning of the features and benefits of your site, you’ll end up spending time on things that don’t belong, and ultimately create a product that isn’t as targeted and beneficial as it could be.

Personally I use Mindmeister or Mindnode to break my site into 4 distinct sections in a mindmap:

  • Content.What’s the goal of the site? How am I going to achieve this goal? If there are similar sites out there, what will set mine apart and how can I improve on what others have already done? What are the key features I need to include?

    One of the initial Mindmaps for LR

  • Pre-Launch: What is going to get people interested? How can I generate buzz? How early will I start the launch process?
  • Site Launch: What day is the site going to launch? What is my affiliate strategy? How can I get as many people to write about it/promote it as possible. How can I make people set their alarms for 3am just so they can be one of the first people to get access?
  • Continuity: How will I continue to drive sales? How will I get initial users to keep coming back? How can I create a win/win/win scenario for members, affiliates, and myself?

You will never regret spending the extra time to create a clear vision of what you want your site to be.  These are elaborate and complex projects, so the more clear you can be about your goals and strategies the easier it will be to create, and the more success you’ll have over the long term.

Setting up the Site Basics

Now that you know there is a market for your site, and you know exactly what its going to consist of, its time to start considering how the site is going to be built. Depending on how advanced you want to go with your site, you’ve got two major options for your launch: sales page and sales funnel.

Let’s look at what each of these are and the benefits of each.

Sales Page: A simple sales page is the easiest way to get started.  Basically you will create the site, and then when it’s ready to go you will put up a sales page with all of the features and benefits of the site. Pretty straight forward.  Unless you’ve been good and already created a sales page for testing purposes, most people will create their sales page after they’ve created the product.  I’ve heard numerous stories of people staying up til 4am the night before their launch finalizing the sales page.  These may or may not include a video, and generally this is the easiest route to go.

If you go this route make it as easy to read as possible and actually make it useful to your potential customers.  Tell unique stories and make them so excited about what your selling that not buying it doesn’t seem like an option anymore.

Sales Funnel: A sales funnel has the same end goal as a simple sales page: to sell as many memberships as possible, however its done in a different way.  With a sales funnel you generally create what is called a “squeeze page” before the product is site is even created.  The whole purpose of a squeeze page is to capture email addresses and bring them into your sales funnel, which will allow you to spend a series of weeks or even months selling them on the product leading up to its launch.  You do this by offering new stuff (worksheets, videos, podcasts etc) while also handling any objections they might have.

Generally in order to capture the email address you give something away for free that offers immense value – something you could probably sell if you wanted to.  This is a more complicated and time consuming process up front, but it’s also much more effective.

Here is a good example of a squeeze page, that also gives some great advice on, well, creating a squeeze page!

For Overcoming the Fear of Uncertainty I went with a simple sales page that I created the night before my launch.  With Location Rebel I’ve decided to go with a sales funnel.  The goal there is to provide as much value as possible regardless of whether or not the person ends up buying the product of not.  In my case its been a free ebook, worksheet and a series of informational videos about the lifestyle.

Decide which of these is right for you.

If you went with a simple sales page you can skip down, as now I want to talk about the logistics of setting up a squeeze page.

Setting Up Your Squeeze Page

First things first, if you want to have a squeeze page, you need to have a professional email auto-responder such as Aweber or MailChimp.  Let’s face it, if you don’t have something like this already, you may want to reconsider your goal of setting up a membership site.

What this service will allow you to do is capture email addresses, send mass mailings to them, or a series of automatic mailings that may be integrated into your offer.  For instance my opt in offer on Location 180 is for my free ecourse called “6 Steps Towards Location Independence” (see sidebar).  Once you sign up you automatically get one email a week covering one of the six steps.  Being able to communicate to your new audience in this way is vital to the success of your squeeze page and membership site release.

Location Rebel

I personally use Aweber due to their really robust and customizable feature set, but they also start out at $19/month and rise pretty quickly.  MailChimp on the other hand is free for your first 500 subscribers, so if cost is an issue, that might be the better route to take.

Ok, so now you’ve got a way to capture email addresses, time to create your squeeze page.  This is where selecting your theme is important.  You can do this with any theme, but the best experiences I’ve had have been with Thesis and OptimizePress. Thesis is great for sales pages, but setting up sales funnels with it is a little bit more difficult.

OptimizePress is my absolute #1 recommendation for a WordPress theme for your membership site.  It costs $97, but in that it has dozens of templates for squeeze pages, sales pages, and membership pages for inside the site.  It is the absolute easiest way to create a high quality, high converting squeeze page, and it will take you HOURS less time to do it with this than most other themes – especially if you don’t have technical knowledge.

Main features of OptimizePress and why you should use it if you’re setting up a sales funnel:

  • Cookie Drop.  So say someone goes to your page and signs up and then is taken to another page where they have access to your ebook, videos, worksheets, or whatever else you’re giving away for free.  You don’t ever want to them to see that initial page again.  Once they’re in your sales funnel you want them to only see the free content, and the sales offer which will also be inside. Optimize Press uses what’s called a cookie drop to place a cookie in your user’s computer which tells the site that they’ve already signed up and they don’t need to see the squeeze page anymore.  This is extremely useful for both you and them, and makes the process much easier.
  • Dozens of Templates. Regardless of what kind of page you want, sidebars, no sidebars, video, no video, nav bar, no nav bar etc. OptimizePress has a template for you.  This makes it extremely easy to setup all of your pages quickly and effectively.
  • Similar systems like Kajabi sell for $99 a MONTH. This is a one time fee of only $97, and you can use it on as many of your sites as you want.

So that said if you’re going to setup a sales funnel, check out OptimizePress and spend a couple hours getting familiar with it.  There’s definitely a learning curve, but once you’ve got it, it’s extremely easy to setup pages.

You also now have all of the tools necessary to create your squeeze page, let’s recap:

  • Install a theme and create the pages for your sales funnel. This should include: squeeze page, inside page where users can download all of the free stuff, and any subsequent pages in the sales process such as a “Questions” page, “What is_____” page, “Join Now” page etc.  These don’t all have to be live right away depending on the length of your launch schedule, but having them created for organization’s sake is a good idea.
  • Create your free giveaways. It doesn’t matter whether that’s an ecourse, ebook, podcast, video series or combination of all of the above.
  • Upload this to your server or Amazon S3 and add it into your sales funnel pages.

Building Out the Rest of Your Membership Site

Now that you’ve got your sales funnel rocking and rolling, it’s time to build out the rest of the site.  We’ve already covered some important aspects of a membership site like email software, and your sales strategy, but now it’s time to ask a few more questions, because these will dictate how much time it will take to build out the remainder of the site:

  • Which membership plugin are you going to use?
  • How are you going to facilitate member interaction? Forum? Comments? Both?
  • Will you have a large amount of video content inside the site?

Let’s take a look at each of these one by one, because they are some of the most important aspects of your site.

Which Membership Plugin Should You Use?

This is where most people run into trouble during their membership site setup.  There are a wide variety of different WordPress plugins that allow you to actually create the “membership” portion of your site.  Almost all of these serve have the following features:

  • Protect desired pages from public view. What good is a membership site if everyone can see your content? Having one of these plugins will ensure the public, and each member “level” is only able to see the information their entitled to.
  • Create multiple user tiers. Let’s say you want to have 3 different pricing tiers, where each tier has access to different amounts of information.  These plugins let you create those tiers and assign who can see what.
  • Feature a content drip. Maybe your site is a 12 week program of some sort.  These plugins will allow you to release specific content every week or x number of days to make sure people don’t skip ahead and follow the program.
  • Create Free Trials. Sometimes the best way to hook people is to bring them inside for a week for free.  Not a problem using these tools.
  • Full integration with your payment processor, digital delivery tool, and sometimes affiliate programs.

This should give you an idea of why these plugins are so important – bottom line, without them, you have no membership site.

So with all of the choices out there, how do you choose? Well, let’s narrow it down.  There are two main players out there, Wishlist Member and Amember.  One of the two of these is probably going to be your pony, so let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each, understanding that both of them can do all of the things mentioned above.

Wishlist Member

  • One of the easiest member plugins for initial setup.
  • Very easy to create custom “thank you”, “members only”, and “your level doesn’t have access to this” pages.
  • Relatively inexpensive at $97.
  • Doesn’t integrate well with most forum software. Ie, if you want to have one login for both your site and your forum Wishlist Member does NOT do this for the most part.  The one notable exception is that it is compatible with Buddy Press (I think).
  • Works well with E-Junkie, but does not have the built in affiliate features that Amember has.

Amember

  • Most feature heavy and customizable of all the membership plugins.
  • Also one of the least user friendly membership plugins.
  • On the expensive end at $179.95
  • Integrates well with forum software like Vanilla Forums
  • Has very good affiliate options built in.

So which one is best for you? If you’re doing your first site, and are erring on the side of less complex, then definitely get Wishlist Member.  This is what I used for Overcoming the Fear of Uncertainty and I think it took me about an hour or two to get everything integrated correctly.

If you’re doing a more complex site, then the decision gets a little bit trickier.  The ease of Wishlist is great, but some of the features of Amember (particularly forum and affiliate integration) are great despite the higher price point and it being less user friendly.

For Location Rebel it was a VERY tough decision, although in the end I decided to stick with Wishlist.  For as easy and powerful as it is, I decided it wasn’t worth the headaches that many people have complained about with Amember.  That said, @tumbledesign helped me make Wishlist and Vanilla play nicely.

Either way you really can’t go wrong, both of these are excellent plugins and will allow you to do just about whatever you want with your membership site. Episode #60 of the Lifestyle Business Podcast also talks in some detail about the benefits Amember.

How Are You Going to Facilitate Member Interaction?

This is a very important question, because it is one of the key factors that will gauge how difficult the setup process will be. You essentially have four options when it comes to member interaction inside this kind of site:

  • Comments. This allows users to comment and discuss the material on each individual page of your site.  This is great for smaller interaction, and adds to the value of that page, but it makes it more difficult to search for these comments and see it on a broader scale.
  • Forum. If member interaction is going to be play an important role in your site, a forum is essential.  There are a variety of different forum software options out there (will discuss below), each of which has pros and cons, as well as varying degrees of difficulty in setting up.
  • Both. If you’re goal is to really provide a community atmosphere using these two features in tandem can be very beneficial.
  • Neither. Usually I’d say eliminating user interaction happens on the very low end of products or the very high end.  On the low end if you’ve just taken what would otherwise be a short ebook and designed it as a basic membership site, comments and forums especially, may be a little overkill.  On the other hand if you have a very expensive, specialized, and high priced product, you might not want to water down the message by allowing users to share their opinions.

If you go with any option other than forums, there really is very little you need to do.  It’s all built into wordpress, and aside from maybe adding a comment plugin such as Disqus, you should be good to go.

That said, if you want to integrate a forum, then you better be ready to add a layer of complexity to your site.

Also if you want everything to work right out of the box, then I’d consider using Amember over Wishlist, as it generally is more compatible with most forum software.

That said, here is a brief overview of some forum options:

  • phpBB. This is definitely the most widely used forum software out there.  It’s free open source software and is a good choice because most people are comfortable with it – most forums out there are run on phpBB.  That said, it definitely looks a little archaic and isn’t as sleek as some of the other options.  Nevertheless a very good option. Installation Instructions.
  • Vanilla. Personally I really like Vanilla.  I think it’s the best looking forum software out there, and while it takes people a little getting used to (since most people are familiar with the phpBB format) once they do they tend to really like it.  There are a number of free plugins out there to increase usability, and this is also free and open source. Installation Instructions.
  • Buddy Press. I strongly considered using Buddy Press for Location Rebel.  It has a ton of features and allows users to create their own profile pages which I thought was pretty cool. The problem with it is, if you’re theme isn’t compatible with Buddy Press, then it can be a real development headache to get there.  This is a good solution if you’re using Buddy Press as a framework for your entire site, rather than just a small component of the site. Installation Instructions.
  • vBulletin. vBulletin is the most popular paid forum software out there. Which for me is a deal breaker.  With so much good open source stuff out there, with giant support communities, I just didn’t feel it was necessary to pay the $175-250 depending on what version you want.  That said, vBulletin is extremely powerful and like Buddy Press if you’re really trying to build a whole community on this CMS then it could definitely be worth the money.

Regardless of what you choose, it should work out well.  It just may take a little more work if you don’t choose compatible forum software/membership plugins.

NOTE: I should also clarify, when I say compatible what I mean is having one login for your membership site and your forum.  You can embed Vanilla for instance on a page thats protected by Wishlist. The user then just has to use a separate login for the forum which is kind of annoying.  Don’t devalue the power of a good user experience.

Content Creation and Distribution

Considering this got a whole section in the mindmapping process, and more importantly due to the fact that this is why people will pay you, putting a LOT of thought and effort into your content creation is extremely important.

This is where we might deviate from the whole 48 hours thing.  This whole setup process can easily be done in a weekend if you’ve already got the basics of your content created.  If you’re doing a small site, you could still conceivably do site creation and content in a weekend, but you’d better have a lot of red bull!

I’d like to reiterate the importance of mapping out your site from the beginning. You should know what pages you want to have, how they will all go together, and how your members will be able to easily navigate around your site.

There’s not really a lot I can tell you about this, because that will be very specific to the type of site you’re creating and how you go about it.  I will say the more forms of media you can utilize the better.  In both Overcoming the Fear of Uncertainty and Location Rebel I utilize text, pdf worksheets, audio, and video to appeal to a variety of learning styles and to keep things interesting.

The Logistics of Video

If your site is going to be video and audio heavy then I highly recommend using a service like Amazon S3 for your storage and downloads.  No I take that back, I highly recommend you use Amazon S3. It’s extremely cheap (I just got a bill for $0.43).

Using Amazon S3 accomplishes a couple things:

  • It removes video branding. Whenever you use Vimeo or You Tube you get all their annoying logos and stuff all over the video, it’s not clean, elegant, and isn’t about your brand but about theirs.  Hosting your videos on Amazon removes that aspect of it.
  • No commercial licensing issues. I’ve heard nightmares of Vimeo users who’ve been given 24 hours to remove their content for violating their “no commercial video” purposes.  You’d be surprised what they consider commercial. It’s best not to even go there.
  • Cloud Backup. The more content you create, the more important it is to have multiple backups.  This works as both a great way to distribute content, and back it up.

If you do choose to use Amazon S3 for your video, you will need to install a video player on your site.  If you’re using OptimizePress then they have one that is built in, otherwise I’d recommend Flow Player.

Also, when you use Amazon, it doesn’t compress the videos for playback like You Tube or Vimeo, so you’ll need to make sure you do that yourself.  Most videos straight out of your camera or imovie (especially if they’re in HD) will be extremely large, and thus will playback very, very slowly.  Download Handbreak to cut these files sizes down to 1/10th of the size while still retaining quality.

Membership Tiers and Content Drip

One of the cool things about either Wishlist or Amember is that they both allow you to create as many membership tiers as you want.  So that said you could essentially have three different pricing tiers: Silver, Gold, and Platinum lets say.  Doing this not only can increase your sales, but it can allow your members to find a program that’s more tailored to them.

Maybe they are just starting out and don’t need some of the advanced features you offer, offer them a lower priced “silver package”.  This is extremely easy to setup using the plugins, and if they try and access something above their tier then they just get a message (that you can customize) that says you need to upgrade if you want access to this.

Another potential distribution model is the content drip.  We mentioned this earlier when talking about the plugins, but this can be a really effective way of making sure people actually follow through with the program, and don’t just purchase, get all the info, and then return the product.

Other options are offering $1 trials, or using the “preview” tools to give them access to the first few paragraphs of content before saying they need to sign up to see the rest.

Making sure you know how you are going to setup your membership tiers and distribute your content is extremely important, because if this isn’t thought through correctly you could be leaving a lot on the table, or making your users unnecessarily frustrated.

Affiliate Programs and Payment Processors

This is one of the most important parts of your program, because if people are going to shell out big bucks to be a part of your site, you don’t want them to second guess it because the payment processor doesn’t work.  There are a lot of different ways you can do this, but here are three of the most common, in order from most simple to most complex:

E-Junkie and Paypal Combination

E-Junkie is the easiest way on the planet to distribute a product and create an affiliate program. It only costs five bucks a month and integrates very well with paypal and both wishlist/amember.  This is the route I chose to take for Overcoming the Fear of Uncertainty.  E-Junkie allows people to easily sign up for the affiliate program, and it even allows me to create discount codes for the product, which can definitely help spur sales.

That said it certainly has it’s limitations.  You can not be paid on a recurring basis with this combination, so if you’re doing a monthly fee membership site, you’ll need to find another option.  It also gives affiliates very few options in terms of customization and exposure, so while it’s great starting out, it isn’t the best combination for a large scale project.

Clickbank

Clickbank is a little bit more expensive to get started, but it’s not too bad, just a $49.95 listing fee for your product.  They offer a variety of tools that E-junkie just doesn’t have.  You get listed in the Click Bank marketplace, so other people can find and promote your product.  They deal with all affiliate payouts and returns, which if your site grows will save you a LOT of time.  There are also options with Clickbank to setup recurring monthly payments.  So if you’re working on a pretty big site, this is probably the best starting point.

Self Hosted Affiliate Service

If you’ve already got a few products out there and have a large audience, then you might need something that gives you even more customization options than Clickbank.  Sure Clickbank can scale to about as big as you want to go, but if you’re really serious about building your affiliate program and distribution services, then you’ll want to consider something like 1Shoppingcart or Infusionsoft.

These bad boys don’t come cheap with 1SC starting at $99/month and Infusionsoft being a lot more than that.  So if you don’t already know what these are, there’s a good chance you should probably stick with E-Junkie or Clickbank.

Search Engines and Other Things to Consider

When I launched my first membership site there’s one thing that I didn’t take into account that really caused some headaches: search engines.

You are going to have a lot of protected content that you aren’t going to want Google to see, and if you fail to do something about that upfront, you’ll have some trouble.

So the easiest way to deal with this during the creation phase is just to go into your WordPress dashboard and go to “Settings –> Privacy” and say “Block Search Engines”.  This way you won’t need to worry about half finished content getting listed.

But what do you do when the site is done, and you want the search engines to find you – or at least part of you? Here’s what I do.

  • Any page that is entirely behind the pay wall I add a no archive and no index tag to.  You can usually edit this right inside of your post or page dashboard depending on your theme.
  • Then, and this is important, you need to go to your Google XML sitemap, and get the page ids for each of these pages, and make sure the plugin does not index them. (Also, you should download the Google XML sitemaps plugin if you’ve not done so)
  • Do this by going to Settings –> XML Sitemap, scrolling down to exclude posts and enter in the each of the page ids.  This can be found by going to your posts or pages screen and highlighting each of them.  On the bottom of the page when the link shows up you’ll see a long link and in it, it will say something like post=32.  That is the number you’ll want to add to the “exclude posts” section of the xml sitemap.

    Page ID 186 – that’s your ID

Useful Membership Site Plugins

There are thousands of plugins out there, but which ones are the most beneficial to your membership site?  Here are some of my favorites:

  • Google XML Sitemap: We mentioned this earlier, and as long as you block protected pages this will definitely help with your search engine rankings
  • Go Codes: If you’re going to use affiliate links in your site, this is the best way to mask the links so they don’t look so ugly.  There are lots of premium plugins that do this, but I find Go Codes to do 95% of what I need it to.
  • Simple “Coming Soon” and “Under Construction”: Props to Andrew Norcross for telling me about this one.  Before I launched Location Rebel I used this plugin to put up a coming soon page and count down timer that anyone who visited the domain would see.  However, if you were logged into the site it worked normally, so I was able to develop the site without anyone seeing it.
  • BM Custom Login: If you’re going to have a bunch of users logging into your site on a daily basis, you don’t want them to see that ugly wordpress login page every time.  This plugin allows you to create your own custom login page relatively easily.  I also believe Optimize Press has this feature built in.
  • Page Tree: This is a super simple yet really beneficial plugin that allows me to have a sidebar widget with expandable and collapsable menus. Super easy to use and very effective.

Finishing Up

Well, over 6,100 words later (and nearly 2000 words longer than the previous longest post here at Location 180) you have it, that’s how you build a successful membership site.  I’m sure there are probably a few components that I missed, but if you follow these steps and research all of the tools and components provided you should have no trouble building out a membership site in 48 hours.

That said if I did miss anything or you have questions, shoot me an email or leave comment.  I fully intend to update this post as necessary to make it the best resource on the internet for the membership site process.

If you enjoyed this or got value out of it, I would REALLY appreciate it if you would share it on Facebook (by hitting like below) or sharing it on Twitter.  You can also download the free Location Rebel Arsenal ebook which will give you all the tools necessary to run your new membership site from anywhere on Earth!

NomadicNeill May 5, 2011 at 7:54 am

Great guide, I think I’ll swipe this as my check-list.

I’m focusing on membership sites as well as the moment.

I’ve used WishList for a couple of projects and like it, although I would like a better way to drip content (not just by doing it with multiple membership levels) but it does the job.

ClickBank is best for me when handling affiliates because it means I don’t have to worry about paying them or dealing with their taxes.

Sean May 5, 2011 at 10:07 am

@Nomadic Neil I need to look into some of the new features with the lates version wishlist that just came out re: content drip – i think they may have addressed that.

@Nate Thanks man, hopefully you get some value out of it!

Nate St. Pierre May 5, 2011 at 9:27 am

Good lord, Sean – you pulled out all the stops on this one! Great info, man. So helpful. Thanks!

Martin May 5, 2011 at 10:48 am

Hey Sean,

Long post and definitely achievable in 48 hours! I love the way youve detailed out the different steps and the various options available. This is going into my bookmarks!
On a side note, I read one of your reviews of M6 and will love your opinion if you have actually purchased it? Maybe I could email you?

Martinsays: Thanks

Jeff A. Jones May 5, 2011 at 4:09 pm

Mercy this is a long yet informative post. All you need to know from A-Z to get your membership up and running. I’ll get right on it!

Dino May 5, 2011 at 5:24 pm

Thanks Sean, this is a brilliant post!

Very informative and very helpful, thanks for sharing.

Peter Zink May 5, 2011 at 6:13 pm

Now this is what many would definitely call “valuable content.”

David Berger May 5, 2011 at 7:34 pm

Epic post, Sean.

I’m right now building a membership site with Amember.

Yes, the price ist $180. However, many plugins are not included in that price. The plugin that enables Vanilla integration costs $40, we’ll also have to buy a 3rd party Aweber integration plugin (the standard one that comes with Amember sucks) for $67. Our Aweber license will therefore be $287.

Configuration is such a pain in the ass. Today is the 4th day that I’m spending on configuring Amember. Vanilla is still not working for unknown reasons (seems to be configured properly) and I just managed to get WP to work (had to activate some cookie-login setting that was not mentioned in the manual). Note that I’d consider myself tech-savy, I know my way around PHP-code and databases.

The Amember documentation sucks and the backend looks like the designers never heard the word “usability” before.

I guess all this pain is worth it if you really need the advanced features. If not, go for Wishlist and save yourself time and money.

Matt May 5, 2011 at 10:29 pm

WOW!! Now this is what one would refer to as everything you ever wanted to know about building a membership site. Great reference!

Mike Stankavich May 6, 2011 at 1:52 am

Sean, I’ve seen $30 ebooks with far less content value than this post. Great stuff man, thanks for sharing. I’ll definitely bookmark this one. @NomadicNeill is right – use it as a build/launch checklist.

Adam Mayfield May 6, 2011 at 10:12 am

Dang! That’s an intense guide! Nice job, lots of info and not just for membership sites.

Dave May 7, 2011 at 6:42 am

Awesome guide, very comprehensive, and I’m bookmarking it for future reference BUT I do feel while you gave the post a catchy title, it’s misleading to suggest a membership site can be set up in 48 hours.

I’d say it’s feasible if the person has experience with a lot of the tools and programs required, but if it’s a blogger going at it for the first time, it’ll take longer. There are always problems and questions that arise, no matter how well the process is mapped out.

Granted, some of the tools mentioned here weren’t available when I created my membership site back in late 2009, but I still found it took 10 times the amount of work I anticipated when I first had the idea (and that goes for every part of the process, from choosing resources, to creating content and optimizing the sales page).

Financial Samurai May 7, 2011 at 9:45 am

Wow, nice one Sean! That does sound like a lot of work.

What about helping one set up a Member Site from start to finish, with the client just putting together the content? How much would you charge for that? That would be a good service I’d be willing to pay for.

thnx,

Sam

George Palmer May 8, 2011 at 11:36 am

Hey Sean,

Great post with lots of useful information. Membership sites are a great way to go in my experience – you get a recurring income each month and any extra customers you get increase your income for each month for the life of the customer (typically anything from 6 months to 2 years). Customers also offer a lot of feedback as they’ve a vested interest and this in turn helps you create a much stronger offering.

Charging for it and managing the digital content can be a little tricky which is why I founded Digital Delivery App (www.digitaldeliveryapp.com). We don’t do subscriptions yet, we’re currently more like e-junkie, but have had a lot of requests for it so are looking at adding the feature in. It would certainly be a lot cheaper than $99/month so one to watch for the future!

Anyway shameless self promotion over – keep up the excellent work. I would love to see more how to blog posts like this,

George

George Palmer May 8, 2011 at 11:37 am

P.S. Any more posts you do on digital content, happy to look over and offer input – I see a lot of our customers sites and have noted many patterns since we started out.

Greg Rollett May 11, 2011 at 9:06 am

Damn, broken down like a champ. COuldn’t have said it better myself and I run a ton of Membership sites. I second that my life has become ultimately easier with OptimizePress, I just worry that it will get overused on the front end (sales + squeeze) and become ineffective. But the membership options make me look way cooler than I am.

Great work bud!

Rob May 11, 2011 at 11:33 am

Putting me out of a job eh? Awesome to see you pull in this wide range of knowledge, awesome real world breakdowns on all the tech out there to get membership done. With all the backends and entrepreneurs I’ve been working with, this is the hot new thing.

I even have the bug and am looking to launch a members only private tech support and instruction elements to IT Arsenal.

I for those most agree with you with everything mentioned above as well. I lean toward Mailchimp, Amember, and Vanilla, for integrations, but you hit the big names.

This post was a monster, thanks for that. You could easily chop up each section and push this out as a PDF, it’s a bit overwhelming, but easily bookmarked. Heck, I might chop it up and release it as a PDF with credits to you. Later

Jenny Blake May 30, 2011 at 3:09 pm

EPIC, AMAZING, OUTSTANDING post!!! I can’t even imagine how long this took to put together — THANK YOU! I’m with everyone else who commented — bookmarking and coming back to this as my number one resource for building an online community/membership site.

You rock, Sean Ogle!

Josephine Ocean July 14, 2011 at 1:55 pm

What about SELLING streaming videos and learning modules to people? Create an ecommerce website, with a shopping cart, like Yahoo or whatever, which takes a rev share, create a membership site (amember plug-in or some other membership), use merchant services like Paypal for checkout, use a video host like…Wistia pehaps? Would a membership/subscription help protect the “product” (the video) that a person purchases? Any ideas of how to sell streaming videos without membership? Basically, sell streaming videos and be able to control the number of views, so maybe sell a membership for XX dollars, for XX amount of time, for XX number of video view. No clue. Not sure. Suggestions?

Anthony July 19, 2011 at 5:31 am

Fantastic guide Sean! What if you already had a site that you were wanting to transform into a membership site, but had a lot of forum interaction with “simple press?”

I’m considering this on one of my sites and will let the already subscribed continue to be a member for free. I’m wondering why simple press didn’t make your list, maybe an integration thing?

Kirk August 16, 2011 at 7:46 am

Great article…is there a resource that ANYONE can recommend for creating sales page copy and letters? That would be GREAT!

steve August 26, 2011 at 8:09 am

I don’t understand the section on “wanting bots to find part of you” (get Id’s from Sitemaps, etc.) Why wouldn’t you want the Google bots to find as much of you as they can, etc? Why mess with this?

Sean August 26, 2011 at 3:29 pm

Steve, because you don’t want Google to index all of your protected pages. You’ll run into issues when Google starts indexing things behind a paywall, and this just keeps that from happening.

steve August 27, 2011 at 6:54 am

Sean,
Thanks for the response man, great to hear all you are doing! I still don’t understand. Why don’t you want google to index pages that have ‘teaser’ content in front, with paid content behind? What issues do you run into? From everything you’ve learned, does SEO not even matter for membership sites? I’ve researched this stuff a bit and can’t find much out there from thought leaders on SEO/membership sites, etc. Regarding Affiliate Mgt and with the intent to sell decent amounts of info, would you only use Clickbank based on the amount of time & headache it saves you (keeping track, paying, taxes, etc)?
Thanks Sean…Cheers!

Matt August 27, 2011 at 11:52 am

Hi Sean,

How did you work out the E-Junkie and Wishlist Member integration. I have been digging around google for a while and I can’t find an answer. Most of what I find talks about how it’s not a good solution for reoccurring membership sites but since I need it for a one-off payment, it’ll work fine. I want the ability to have an affiliate program and coupon codes. Do you have a link to a resource? Thanks.

- Matt

Sean August 28, 2011 at 7:14 pm

It basically just sends people to a link after they buy through your account – so theoretically someone could share the link and have access, in my experience though it hasnt been an issue.

Heres the response I gave someone else recently with the same question:

All I did for my e-junkie/paypal setup was:
Signup for e-junkie and get the link to the checkout page.
Used that link for my “order now” buttons
Went into the wishlist backend and went to integration –>shopping cart –>paypal and followed the setup instructions
Then you should be good!

Good luck!

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