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Membership Site: New Domain, Sub-Domain Or Same Site? How To Avoid The Mistake I Made.

Should you set up your membership site on a separate domain? Use a sub-folder? Sub-domain? Here’s the lesson I learned the hard way.

When you are looking to build and grow a membership site, one of the big questions you face is...

Should you set it up on the same domain as your blog?

Should you set it up on a sub-domain?

Or should you register an entirely new domain just for the membership site?

I want to definitively answer this. I want to save you a bunch of time and hassle. Because I just sunk quite a bit of time into repairing this mistake in my own business.

Let me tell you a bit about that...

My Story Of Fixing A Mistake

As most of my readers know, my primary business model is a membership site. The Blog Marketing Academy itself has a very large membership site called THE LAB.

When I set up THE LAB on the back of the Membermouse platform, I kept everything on the same domain. Same WordPress installation. All in one.

I thought it would make things simple. I thought it would also bring some cool capabilities such as:

  • Ability to have members-only exclusive bonuses inside of actual blog posts
  • Ability to relate members-only content to public content (i.e. showing related training courses to a blog post)
  • Ability to change the look of the site for members (i.e. different navigation, turning opt-in forms off, etc.)

It all made sense. And for over 4 years, that's how it operated. The public side of the Blog Marketing Academy and THE LAB were all managed on one WordPress installation on one domain.

But, it led to complexities. Things like...

  • If I wanted to run a call to action on certain places on the site and not others, there was quite a lot of content to exempt.
  • It required a lot of plug-ins, which led to load issues, which in turn led to the need for me to run a plugin manager just to keep some control over things.
  • My WordPress install was just getting bloated. Numerous custom post types, well over 30 active plug-ins at a time.
  • It led to more issues with SEO because a lot of the content on the site was off limits to search (due to being member protected). It just created a messy SEO footprint.

And so in early October 2019, I decided it was time to do something about it.

The impetus was that I was growing tired of THE LAB being confined by the same theme as the main blog. The addition of new features for LAB meant modifying the main theme. To better accommodate what I wanted inside LAB, it required a complete shift in the overall design. But, there's an issue...

WordPress can only run one theme at a time.

This means that either I was going to have to build in all kinds of geeky if/else logic into my theme to let LAB work differently than the main blog, or...

I needed to separate the two.

And so I did. And it was a TON of work to make it happen. It was like doing surgery on Siamese twins.

But, I got it done. Now, the public side of this site is the marketing engine for the business. And the membership site has been separated out to a dedicated setup.

The #1 Key Take-Away: Your Membership Site Belongs On A Separate Site

Since most of my students and readers likely would be building a membership site on top of WordPress, the short story is...

Put your membership site onto a separate WordPress installation than your main blog.

Period. Full stop.

The advantages to this setup are many...

  • It keeps your marketing side (the blog) and your business side (the membership) separated.
  • Your blog won't need as many plugins, increasing site speed and hence giving you an SEO boost.
  • Your membership will be faster because any plug-ins needed for the public side (like an SEO plugin or social media buttons) can be left out.
  • You can tweak and design a truly exclusive, feature-rich environment for your customers without being constrained by your main blog theme.
  • It is possible to track activity inside your membership site separately rather than having everything all mixed up.
  • You won't be forced to go through the extra hoops of exempting member content from things like calls to action.

When I set up an opt-in call to action (something only suitable for the marketing side), I no longer need to put in a bunch of content exemptions to keep it from showing up inside members-only content.

My membership is no longer constrained by the look and feel of the main blog. In fact, the LAB now looks entirely different than the blog.

Not only that, the truly custom theme inside the LAB means I can build in some dedicated functionality without having to clutter up the theme here on this blog.

So, yes... definitely keep the two sites separated. But, what about the idea of how to handle the domain? Let's discuss...

Option #1: All On The Same Domain

Even if you keep your blog and your membership on two separate WordPress setups, you can keep it all on the same domain if you so choose.

Some people will use yourdomain.com for their site and put their membership into something like yourdomain.com/members/.

Essentially, you would be setting up a new copy of WordPress inside of a folder. 

If you have solid web hosting and it isn't WordPress managed, this setup will work. You just have 2 separate WordPress setups on the same domain. Two separate databases.

From an SEO perspective, an argument could be made that this is a better option. All of your "SEO juice" would be given to that one domain. 

Some may wonder if you could just use WordPress Multisite for this. Yes, but I don't recommend it. As I said above, use two separate WordPress setups.

Option #2: Use A Sub-Domain

This is the option I have gone with. THE LAB is now found at app.blogmarketingacademy.com.

Now, one of the reasons I do this is a technical one. Since I use managed WordPress hosting, the setup isn't really conducive to hosting WordPress inside of a sub-folder. This type of hosting is pretty much suited for one domain, one WordPress, one database. It works just fine for me.

A sub-domain, for all practical purposes, is considered a totally separate website in the eyes of Google. However, that's totally fine with me because there's pretty much nothing there for Google to index. Almost everything outside of some payment pages is protected behind a login anyway.

I have set up a totally separate profile in Google Analytics just to track THE LAB. It is, for all practical purposes, a separate website even though it technically shares the same root domain.

Option #3: A Brand New Domain

Lastly, you could decide to set up your membership on an entirely separate domain name. It will be a separate website not only technically, but in terms of branding.

The only real advantage of this option is BRANDING. If you want to build a brand name around the title of your membership as it's own thing, then this is your best option. 

In my case, I have no desire to do that. My brand name is already "Blog Marketing Academy". That word "Academy" already lends itself to what I do. This is a learning environment. There is no reason for me to go out and register a new domain for the LAB. It makes no sense. So, I use the sub-domain to make it clear that it is all under one roof.

Back in the "old days", I used to use DavidRisley.com as my domain. If I were still doing that, then I would definitely separate my membership into it's own domain. That's because "David Risley" makes a pretty crappy product name.

In short...

If the name of your website or existing brand lends itself to the actual name of your membership site, then I see no reason to separate into a new domain. I think a sub-domain or a sub-folder install works better.

How To Do The Separation If You Didn't Start That Way

If you're in the situation I was in and you want to change it up, let me tell you briefly what I did. My site was all mashed together and I now wanted to separate the two.

Now, part of what made this interesting is a matter of timing. After all, THE LAB is a live membership site. There is active member activity. There are live transactions happening. All that stuff is recorded in the database. So, when I clone my site, things could get out of sync quickly.

So, the first thing I had to do was map out what that transition would look like in terms of rebilling.

Since I use MemberMouse, changing the domain over is pretty much as simple as activating the new sub-domain inside my Membermouse account. MemberMouse has a full support article on how to do that. The moment I do that, all of the existing subscriptions will be rebilled and synced to that new sub-domain.

Then, there's the matter of Paypal. Paypal being Paypal, they just love to be inconvenient. It is their favorite pasttime, really. So, of course, you cannot just change the Paypal IPN URL and be done with it because that does nothing for existing subscriptions.  I mean, it would make sense to change the IPN URL in one spot and it would affect your whole account. So, of course, Paypal won't do it that way. You know, out of principle. 😉

So, basically I need to set up a redirect at the server-level that would redirect ALL traffic to my old Paypal IPN script and re-route it to the new one on the sub-domain. As well as change the IPN URL inside my Paypal account to the new one so that all new subscriptions will work properly.

Lastly, I needed to re-route all URLs to THE LAB from the main site to the new sub-domain. This way my existing members wouldn't be totally hung out to dry. For my site, the full list of redirects looked like this:

As you can see, a lot of it is mapping links to the custom post types associated with LAB content and just sending it all over to the new sub-domain.

I mapped all this out. Knew exactly what I was going to do and had it all planned for rapid execution. Because I knew the moment I cloned the database, things could get out of sync if a renewal transaction payment happened in the interim.

With the plan in place, I cloned the whole thing over. Quickly re-routed all payments.

At this point, I had 2 identical sites... but now the NEW one (on the sub-domain) was the one actively handling transactions.

Now, I could proceed to separate the two sites. Essentially removing all the membership stuff from the blog site... and all the blog stuff from the membership site. There was a lot of plug-in de-activations. A lot of moving posts to trash and deleting them. Unregistering post types. Removing customizations from the theme that are only required for one side of things.

Yes, it's geeky.

Which is why it is better to avoid having to do it at all by doing it right ahead of time.

Final Words

After doing it the other way and eventually having to face the music of the bad choice, I can tell you definitively...

Set up your membership site on a separate site than your main blog.

I would say the only exception to this is if you KNOW your membership will be limited and won't grow that much. If what you have in mind will remain small and not a lot of features involved, then there's a certain simplicity with having everything under one roof. That's what I was going for. Problem is... my membership didn't stay small. 🙂

If your membership site is going to be the major framework of your business, definitely separate it out. There are many advantages.

Not the least of which is that maybe you'll get to avoid the labor involved with doing major site surgery down the road to rip the two aspects of your business apart after years of activity.

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