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How we built a world-class membership website using WordPress and WP Full Pay
When we began working with Sivan Garr, a Spiritual Life Coach from Northern California, we were evaluating various ways to improve her e-commerce website. During our initial consultation, Sivan explained that she wanted to improve her site to better sell her coaching sessions à la carte, preferably using something like the standard WooCommerce storefront.
But as we continued our conversation, it became clear that Sivan had an opportunity to transition away from a storefront experience to a membership system that allowed her customers to have access to the full range of her content on a subscription basis, rather than via product-by-product “point of sale.”
What led us to this conclusion? Why would you choose a subscription model rather than a product-based storefront? What are the required elements for a subscription-based business? And how would you set one up without hiring an expensive application developer to create a system from scratch?
In this post, we’ll take a deeper look at each of these questions and try to help you determine if a membership website is the right fit for your business.
Before we dive in, a few quick distinctions and definitions. With the rise of the “subscription box” business in the last few years, the opportunity to create a membership program based on tangible goods has become a reality for many entrepreneurs. And that’s great, especially if you like surprises—or candy.
But while these companies are subscription and membership based, most of what we discuss below will be primarily applicable to professionals and companies building a subscription or membership model based on content.
So whether you’re a writer, a journalist, a news publisher, a podcaster, coach, teacher, travel guide, or any other kind of episodic content maker—or aspiring content maker—we hope this review will be relevant for you.
If you’re producing content on a regular basis, you’ve undoubtedly been thinking about or experimenting with different ways to monetize your work. Whether you’re considering selling ads against your content, leasing your audience’s eyeballs to sponsors, or doing stuff like branded content and product placements, there are obviously many different ways to skin this cat. But it’s a good bet that you’ve also been thinking more and more about whether or not a subscription model is right for you.
Obviously, there are a few different ways to answer this question. We could make a whole separate article on the business case for a subscription model—specifically looking at how products sold on subscription benefit both customers and business owners, or why predictable recurring revenue is necessary for a sustainable enterprise.
But for our purposes here, we’ll assume that you, or the decision makers at your business, have already thought long and hard about the pros and cons of a subscription model: they’ve embraced the many upsides of a predictable revenue stream, and they’ve concluded that your products or services are a good fit for a subscription business.
What we’ll focus on here instead is how a subscription model can be leveraged to your advantage as far as your content strategy is concerned, exploring in more depth why you should create your own subscription website rather than opt for a third-party platform. Furthermore, we’ll discuss how you might choose to go about setting up your operation using WordPress and a membership plugin like the one available in WP Full Pay.
At first glance, you might find it quite tempting to hitch your subscription-based business to a platform like Substack. In fact, these days all the major social media platforms are offering their subscription services as well. And while it’s obvious by now that having a presence on the social channel your customers love is a must, it’s now more critical than ever to keep a clear head when thinking about what you’re signing up for when you put all your eggs in, uh, Mark Zuckerberg’s basket.
Needless to say, if you’re building a content subscription business, your owned media is the whole shebang. Having put in all the hard work to create your content, investing all the time and resources required to produce high-quality content products for your customers, why on earth would you go and give all of that content away for free to a social media platform?
Aside from the fact that the Zucks of the world don’t need your charity, relying on a third-party platform to build your subscription business has some other significant downsides:
You have no control over how your content will be displayed to the users of the platform. Sure, they may dangle free views and engagement today, but any day they could tweak their algorithm and throttle your entire program. Don’t forget, no matter how the users of these social channels interact with your content, these users are members of the platform, not your brand.
If you’re going to invest in creating a passionate base of subscribers, you should be able to predict and control the costs of the system. But third-party platforms create pricing models that are outside of your control. And moreover, why should you be sharing your revenue with a platform when you can build your own system, control your costs and price your service however you see fit?
Social media is littered with stories about members being banned, suspended and otherwise interrupted from serving their content to their audiences. Some of these cases are deserved, but many of them, arguably, are not.
Giant corporations have to answer to shareholders and, oftentimes, the public at large. The whims and passions of mainstream culture can shift at any minute, and lots of innocent bystanders can get swept up in the fury. If corporate boards are forced to make decisions about what kind of content has to be cut out of their platform, how confident can you be that your content isn’t going to fall under the knife?
Your business policies should be created and managed by your business, not some external corporate management that couldn’t care less about your business interests. They’re looking out for their bottom line, not yours.
At the end of the day, you want to answer a simple question: why take the risk of building out your entire program on a platform over which you have no control and no influence, especially when the opportunity to build your own membership platform is here for the taking?
Once you’ve come to the realization that you want to build your own platform rather than rely on a third party, the next question you’ll want to ask is whether or not your brand has the right stuff to become a subscription-based business. Again, we’re focused on content-based subscription businesses here—which is an admittedly wide scope—but there are some common factors that make for a strong subscription-based content business. Let’s take a look at a few below.
If you’re new to thinking about content, you may not have heard the term “evergreen” in reference to anything other than trees and forests. In the content world, evergreen content is any material that can be consumed during an extensive time period—we’re talking years or decades, not days and months—and still be relevant and fresh to someone encountering that content for the first time. So for example, educational material that teaches new skills, or entertainment content, or any kind of content where the value isn’t locked into a specific time period.
The quintessential opposite of evergreen content would be a weather report. With very few exceptions, nobody has any use for a weather report created for a day that has occurred in the past. Producing evergreen content means making sure you’re not locking the value of your content to any period of time.
Alternatively, if you’re not creating evergreen content, are you producing a regular stream of highly relevant content?
It turns out that, while weather reports aren’t evergreen, they’re extremely valuable for people who care about what the weather is going to be tomorrow or next week. Consistently creating highly relevant content is a challenge and can be very resource intensive, but if it’s done well, and if you can sustain it over a long period, it can easily justify a subscription model.
Now that you know that you’re not going to rely on a third-party platform, you have to come up with a way to get your content into your customers’ possession.
They’re going to want a few things: can they easily use your platform interface to consume the content? Can they easily manage and control their subscription? Can you easily collect and manage payment processing without having to personally contact the customer?
Hosting your content online for your audience is obviously a requirement for a content subscription business. And no matter what methods you use to get in front of your audience, you’ll always want to drive them back to your owned media on your owned platform.
But just having content online and available is not enough.
You need a way to get your content in front of your audience on their preferred media channels so you can drive them back to your content, and maybe more importantly, so they can share your content with their networks.
Every audience has its own unique media consumption preferences—some will prefer to discover new information on social media, some will prefer email, and still some will prefer text/chat messaging. Do you have a way to send updates and notifications and teasers about new content via email, social media or other messaging applications?
No doubt about it—the absolute hardest part of building a content-based subscription business is creating the content. If you’re already doing this, and doing it well, you’re way more than halfway there.
But then what? Where to begin? Or how to transition to a subscription platform?
We really can’t stress enough that WordPress is probably going to be your best bet. There are lots of reasons for choosing WordPress over any other web application infrastructure that we can’t get into here, but here are a couple points that seal the deal.
First, WordPress is by far the most widely adopted web application architecture on the Internet. As of 2021, WordPress powered almost 40% of all websites published online. And their share is growing! This means not only that the WordPress community is a reliable and sustainable technology that will be around for as long as any of us will be alive, that also necessarily means that the community of developers and services surrounding the WordPress ecosystem is gigantic and vast. You’ll be able to find an existing, affordable and reliable solution to almost any problem you can think of, and you’ll be able to find technical experts who can help you solve problems that are slightly out of your reach.
Second, and probably the primary reason for the first point, WordPress is open source. This means that the codebase is free to use to everyone in the world. And since the WordPress community is so vast, that open-source codebase is updated and maintained quite regularly by technical experts with high attention to detail and all the valuable feedback provided by the enormous WordPress community.
Aside from publishing your owned content on your own properties, one of the main challenges all content marketers face is figuring out how to get their content in front of their prospects and customers “at the right place and at the right time.” Over and over again, we’re finding that the best way to drive content engagement is via social media and email channels.
Now, let me be clear: while I strongly advise you to think twice about using third-party platforms like Facebook as the homebase for your content, social media can be a very important part of the content marketing mix. Publishing content on social media is a great way to get new eyeballs on your work. But don’t forget that the purpose of publishing on social media is to drive engagement back to your owned media.
The top ways marketers distribute content organically are social media platforms (89%), email (87%), and their organization’s website/blog (86%).
In addition to your website, you need a content distribution strategy and the right technology stack to push content to social and manage your campaigns.
As I mentioned above, one of the best things about using an open-source platform like WordPress is that it has a huge ecosystem of themes and plugins and a developer community providing all manner of wares to solve any problem you can imagine. In addition, because of the ubiquity of WordPress, most third-party platforms and service providers have developed solid integrations specifically for the WordPress platform. Content distribution is no exception.
For Sivan’s site, we built out her content marketing campaigns on a marketing automation platform called Mautic. If you’re new to marketing automation, you can check out Symbolscape’s Marketing Automation Playbook to get an in-depth look at how this piece of the technology stack can be deployed as a backbone for your entire marketing operation, giving you all the tools you need to create, distribute and track email marketing and social media campaigns in one single dashboard, providing a “single source of truth” for your marketing team.
Lastly, as the architect of your membership platform, you’ll need a way to convert and manage all your new members. Assuming you’ve created highly valuable content that your members want, and assuming you’ve developed a strategy to drive engagement and bring your prospects back to the website, the last and arguably one of the most important pieces of the puzzle is figuring out how you’re going to process and manage your subscribers after they’ve decided to convert and become a member of your program.
As we found ourselves on this exact journey, hunting around to identify a solution for managing payment processing and memberships, after evaluating a few options we were lucky to find the WP Full Pay plugin. Not only does it allow us to seamlessly integrate with the Stripe payment platform to create and process subscription payments, the Members add-on makes it easy to connect different subscription membership levels to different kinds of access permissions on our websites:
Tiered subscription management
So for example, with Sivan’s website, we were able to create a “free” membership tier that gives customers limited access to some of her coaching content. Then we were also able to create a “premium” tier for paying subscribers who want access to the full range of Sivan’s content. WP Full Pay gave us the ability to easily set up these payment tiers and assign different types of content to different membership levels from right inside the WordPress dashboard without having to rely on custom coding.
Customer-facing account management
One of the nicest features in WP Full Pay is that it gives our subscribers a “Customer portal” page out of the box, so we didn’t have to create a complicated, custom- coded subscriber interface. The customer can login and adjust their billing settings and even upgrade their membership if necessary.
Perhaps the defining consideration of any WordPress-based technology we choose is support level. The team at WP Full Pay has consistently gone above and beyond to respond to our questions and concerns. Knowing that the makers of the technology you use care about the performance of their product, and care about their customers, gives us peace of mind. Whichever products you choose, I would strongly advise that you make sure their dedication to providing reliable support is one of your top considerations.
While there are no hard and fast rules to any of this, whether or not you can have success with a subscription-based business depends on several factors. Starting out by making sure you’ve covered the bases in all the areas we’ve outlined above will set you on the right path. Naturally, it also helps to have a strong belief in your mission, perseverance to see it through, and a little bit of magic in your pocket. And it doesn’t hurt to have the guidance of experienced professionals in your corner.
If you’ve decided to go on this journey and you’re looking for help building your membership program, I offer an open invitation to contact us at Symbolscape, drop me a line or ping me on Twitter.
This guest post was written by Travis Simpson, President of Symbolscape Inc., a content marketing services provider dedicated to helping small businesses, professional services, and non-profit clients leverage the marketing technology stack to create and deliver high-quality content marketing campaigns.
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