When you're putting together a WordPress-based membership site, there are already plenty of things to research and decide on. Choosing the theme seems like it might be the easy part. But...
It isn't. Trust me.
Most WordPress themes out there just are not well suited for a membership site. The needs of a typical membership site go beyond the needs of a typical blog. You've got features such as:
- Displaying online courses in a beautiful way
- Course progress tracking
- Member community features
- Account management (like being able to edit member profile without going into the WordPress admin panel)
The typical features of a membership site require different plug-ins, but they also require a theme that is built to make it all look good. Beyond looks, too, some themes literally empower some of the functionality we want.
When I was scoping out a total redo of my entire LAB setup, I came across the BuddyBoss platform and the BuddyBoss theme.
I liked what I saw. So much so, in fact, that I bought it. And today, THE LAB is powered by the BuddyBoss theme.
If you are looking to build (or, like me, re-build) your WordPress-powered membership site, BuddyBoss could be right up your alley, too.
But, to help you find out, let me show you how BuddyBoss works in this BuddyBoss review. Let's dive in...
Table Of Contents
What is BuddyBoss?
If you've been around WordPress much, then you may know that there are a couple of free, open source and very popular community add-on plug-ins called:
- BBPress - Built by the WordPress folks to allow you to create forums on the back of WordPress.
- BuddyPress - Built by the same people, but built to turn WordPress into a social network, complete with member profiles, newsfeed, groups, etc.
Both of these systems are powerful, but it can take some custom development and a bunch of add-on plug-ins to turn them into what you want. Plus, the styling for both is quite minimal, leaving much to the theme to make it not look like crap.
BuddyBoss started off as a "fork" of those two platforms. In developer lingo, a "fork" just means that they took a piece of open source software that people can freely use and develop... and they took it another direction. Kind of like a "fork in the road". So, they developed it, added a lot more functionality, fixed a bunch of issues, and the result is...
The BuddyBoss platform is the community platform. It is what provides all the core functionality of forums, social media groups, profiles, private messaging... and essentially everything you would want to almost clone Facebook right on top of WordPress.
The BuddyBoss Platform is completely free. It is very powerful. And if you want to build community features into your site (whether a public site or a private membership site), BuddyBoss is a great option.
There's only one issue...
Just like BBPress and BuddyPress, BuddyBoss comes with basic styling. And it is pretty ugly. Which means, you need a nice, pretty theme to make it look awesome.
Here's a user profile using the Twenty Nineteen theme that comes with WordPress:
As you can see, it works. But, it isn't too pretty. It would take some serious time modifying the theme and customizing your CSS to make this look better.
Now, compare this to when the BuddyBoss theme is activated...
The theme is NOT free. To use the theme, you need to be also using the platform. But, they are two different things.
From this point forward, I am simply going to refer to this combination as BuddyBoss. While you can use the BuddyBoss platform alone and style it up as you want, it is when using it along with the BuddyBoss theme that I think this becomes a very compelling option for membership site owners.
Why Is BuddyBoss So Well Suited To Membership Sites?
The BuddyBoss theme is designed from the ground up specifically for membership sites. Most themes are designed primarily for blog functionality, but doesn't have the support for the other things.
So what happens is that you end up having to do a massive amount of customization. Or you could use something like Thrive Apprentice (read my Thrive Apprentice review) to organize your courses, but Apprentice is limited in the amount of design functionality you have as it practically bypasses the theme altogether.
Previous versions of THE LAB did things very differently, but in a very custom way. For quite awhile, I based my site on Memberoni, which is a theme made available only to members of the Member Site Academy. I used to be a member there.
I used Memberoni as the foundation for my site, but I hacked the hell out of it to turn it into something more than it was. Memberoni is nice, but it didn't have enough of a community around it because it was limited to Academy members. Plus, as I customized it, I got FAR away from the original roots of the theme. That meant I could no longer update it easily.
Part of the reason I switched to BuddyBoss is because it was a massive time-saver for me.
The theme is designed specifically for membership sites. It integrates with almost anything I would need. It looks great.
Some of the stuff that makes it ideal for membership sites is:
- A built-in integration with LearnDash, allowing you to make your LearnDash courses look fantastic right out of the box. It also works with LifterLMS, if you want to go that route.
- Built-in support for the major WordPress membership plug-ins, such as MemberPress, Paid Memberships Pro, Restrict Content, Wishlist Member (read my Wishlist Member review). Meaning there is special attention paid to making the various screens from these plug-ins look great.
- Built-in integration with WooCommerce, meaning you can only only turn your site into a selling platform, but the entire system will look fantastic.
- Built-in support for the various forms plug-ins you are likely to use in your membership. I use Gravity Forms and the styles are all just ready to make it look great.
- Built-in support for gamification, if you want to use that.
- Built-in ability to lock the whole site down to require login, if you want.
- Built-in ability to customize the login screen to look quite professional and not use the default WordPress login.
The ironic part is that the ability to control the style of the actual blog is, by far, NOT the most important thing about this theme. And that makes sense. Because this is a membership site theme. While it could be used on a public site for a public blog, the real power of this setup is... everything else.
BuddyBoss And LearnDash
BuddyBoss has built-in support for LearnDash and LifterLMS. In my re-build of THE LAB, I switched all courses as well as the Roadmap itself to LearnDash.
LearnDash works a lot like BuddyBoss platform out of the box. The functionality is all there, but it doesn't look very nice at all. The styling of LearnDash courses is up to you and your theme.
BuddyBoss makes LearnDash look fantastic.
BuddyBoss not only makes things look great, but it is built to work alongside all the features of LearnDash. The progress tracking looks great. Quizzes (if you use them) look great. Even little details, such as ensuring embedded videos automatically take up 100% width that way you don't have to mess with video dimensions. BuddyBoss even has a "dark mode" and a focus mode inside all courses.
BuddyBoss Theme Options
One of my biggest reasons for switching to BuddyBoss was to save my own time. Many of the things that I would have had to dive into the CSS with my old setup and do myself... BuddyBoss has built right into the theme options and you can control it by flicking a switch.
The theme has a big options panel that allows you to control a whole host of things such as:
- Logo & site icon
- Header layout, header buttons, etc.
- The BuddyPanel (the unique side menu you can use for navigating between sections of your site)
- Blog layout
The whole idea here is really to avoid (as much as possible) having to do any custom CSS. The good news is that you can get pretty far with customizing BuddyBoss into what you want with just the built-in options.
BuddyBoss: The Cost
The annual fee for BuddyBoss starts at $228 for one site. For a bit more, you can get a license that allows you to use it on up to 5 sites.
If your first reaction is "That seems expensive", then you're not thinking straight. This is a real steal, by all measures. You're getting all of the social features for your membership site. You're getting a theme that makes it all work and look fantastic. And it integrates with a ton of things right out of the box. Try developing anything even CLOSE to this and see how much hassle and time it will take!
Seriously, when I look at some of my past work to customize the LAB theme and/or add functionality, I spent countless hours doing it. It makes me cringe at this point. Because I just got something MUCH BETTER for only $228/year. That's $19/month. I couldn't even hire a clueless Fiverr person for $19. Certainly, my time is worth way more than that.
BuddyBoss is suitable for a membership site. This is something that will make you money. It will form the foundation of your brand. When you look at it as the core piece of software that it is, spending $19/month for it should feel like a gift. If you think that is expensive for something like this, you're coming into it with the wrong mindset.
Dealing with BuddyBoss Support
Since this is a commercial theme, it does mean you have support available to you. And I used it on several occasions as I was getting things set up for THE LAB.
Support is good, but not perfect.
First off, support is only offered via support ticket via their helpdesk. I am personally a massive fan of being able to use live chat and get support in real-time. BuddyBoss does not provide that. I think they could improve the customer experience by having more support channels.
That said, they were pretty snappy on the response time via their support desk. They were also pretty personal and the people who replied seemed to know what they were talking about most of the time. In a couple cases, they were not fast enough or they had to come back to ask for more data. By that point, I had already figured out the issue on my own.
So, BuddyBoss support is fine. Not perfect... just fine. It wasn't fast enough for me because I'm impatient. Plus, I know more about this stuff than the average WordPress user, so they don't need to waste time asking me questions I've already ruled out. But, in the end, it was fine. Fast enough for a helpdesk. But, it would be nice to have live chat support.
What I Don't Like About BuddyBoss Theme
One of my major reasons for switching to BuddyBoss is to save my time. I wanted something that looked nice, did what I wanted, and was maintained and updated by somebody else.
I know how to modify and code WordPress themes, though. I didn't WANT to do it anymore, but there's definitely times when you need to customize things. And...
BuddyBoss is rather difficult to customize, I must say.
They have a starter child theme that you can install. And you can then go to town and make modifications using the child theme and retain the ability to install updates of the main BuddyBoss theme when they are released. But...
The way BuddyBoss does things is overly complex. It breaks up CSS and template components into different folders in a way which is not standardized. And it makes customizing things unnecessarily difficult.
Also, getting BuddyBoss to look like you want might take some trial and error. Some of the features are spread out all over the place, so it can feel a bit overwhelming at times.
The BuddyBoss theme does lack customizations options for some things. It has some support for Elementor, meaning you can use Elementor to customize some of your membership screens. But, as I said before...
Customizing the actual theme is a bit difficult. You can do it using the child theme, but be prepared to need to dive into the code and figure out the BuddyBoss way of doing things.
Who BuddyBoss is Good For (And Not Good For)
BuddyBoss is not for everybody.
First and foremost, if you don't wish to have a community inside your site, don't bother with BuddyBoss. While this theme does other things, its main focus is the BuddyBoss platform. The social component is a fundamental part of all this. So, if you either don't want a community in your membership or you are intent on using a non-Wordpress option for your community (like dedicated forum software), then BuddyBoss won't do you much good.
Secondly, if your primary purpose is simply to blog, then BuddyBoss isn't for you. Most other themes out there are meant to make your BLOG look good. BuddyBoss might be a WordPress theme, but it is not built primarily as a blog theme. Styling the blog itself is maybe 5% of what BuddyBoss does.
BuddyBoss is a great option for you if:
- You want to build a social membership site, whether free or paid. Whether it is a paid membership with social components or you want to build a full social network that you control and open it up to your entire audience, BuddyBoss will do it.
- You want to build a socially-enabled, paid membership site and intend to use LearnDash.
- You want your social network and forums to be WordPress. I personally like the flexibility of having it all on WordPress, but there's no doubt that dedicated forum software has it's perks.
- You like your membership to look more like a "web app" and less like a regular blog. I personally think BuddyBoss looks fantastic. A quality membership site should look different than a standard blog, in my opinion.
- You mostly like how BuddyBoss looks as is. While you can customize things as much as you want, getting into the code and the child theme gets nerdy and BuddyBoss is not as easy to modify as a regular WordPress theme.
Final Thoughts About BuddyBoss
Different themes with different purposes.
I would never try to use Theme Builder in a membership site. Theme Builder is primarily designed for blogs. It is designed more for marketing-focused WordPress sites.
A membership site is quite a different beast than the typical WordPress blog. THE LAB is a VERY different site and platform than my public blog. It has online courses, progress tracking, note-taking ability, forms, member profiles, social functionality.... and much more. The "blog" inside THE LAB is only used for little announcements and little more.
BuddyBoss is perfect for that.
BuddyBoss is one of the top options for creating a social networking site on WordPress. I don't think there's a better option at this time.
And the theme contains functionality and integrations that make it a real powerhouse for a membership site owner.
In fact, I have growing room. There's support there for things I haven't even turned on yet.
And that's why it is now a fundamental part of my own software stack.