Membership Site Setup: The 4 Main Components Of The Membership Site Tech Stack (And What I’m Now Using)

LAST UPDATED September 4, 2020  |  10 Comments

If you are in the process of building a membership site, there are a lot of considerations that go into choosing the platform and software that goes into it.

There are a lot of options. A lot of WordPress plug-ins. A lot of hosted platforms. It can be quite confusing to wade through it and know what the best options are.

One way to put a little sense into it is to categorize all of it into little boxes. Then, you can decide which box makes the most sense to you.

I have long been in one "box" when it comes to my own membership site. And I have just recently re-engineered everything to switch to the other method.

Planning out your membership site? Download this worksheet to guide you through the idea and planning phase of your new membership site - setting you up for maximum signups and income. Click here to grab your copy.

In this post, I will share these 2 methods. I will also share with you the software that I am now using to power my own business.

In the process, I hope you will see just how powerful a blog-based business can really be. When you're using the right business model and the right tools, your marketing and personalization can be done at scale. And that's how you make your marketing more effective. It can be an incredibly powerful thing once it is setup.

OK, let's get moving...

The 4 Primary Components Of Your Membership Site

I have long said that I believe that a membership site is the best structure for a blog-based business. It can be using any pricing model you want (subscription, fixed pricing, etc.), but a membership site is a PERFECT delivery medium for anything you sell in a digital business like this.

A lot of people know this and so they end up installing a membership site plug-in to WordPress and begin selling content that way. On top of this, you've got your email list. You've got a way to process orders.

So, these are typically 4 different layers (so to speak) that make up the business:

  1. Your blog. Powered by WordPress, of course. Usually using some opt-in form software that serves as people's entry into your business machine.
  2. Your membership site (which could be on the same site, or separated). Includes a way to control access to content and manage accounts. Usually handled by the membership plugin.
  3. A sales system. A way to process and manage orders and subscriptions. Could use a 3rd-party service, or have your membership plugin do it directly.
  4. Your email list (CRM). To give you the ability to communicate to your audience, market to them, communicate to paying members, etc.

Now, when you're setting all this up, you have to make software choices. You have to think about whether your software integrates with one another. You have to get that stuff to "talk" to each other. Yada yada.

Typically, your blog and your membership site (if 2 separate sites) don't really "talk" to each other. They're totally independent. In other cases, the blog and the membership are literally on the same site. You can read more about whether to put your membership on a sub-domain or the same site here.

If you process orders using some third-party cart, you have to think about whether it integrates with your membership plugin, your email list, etc. You'll have different member levels. When somebody buys, you slip them into a member level and you sync it to your email list. Once all this is set up, things sorta work. Hopefully.

But, if we move up and look at the "big picture" here on how to approach the membership site, we have two primary approaches to content protection...

Method #1: Membership Levels

This is the most common method used by most membership plug-ins on the market. In essence:

  1. Member signs up.
  2. Member gets added to a particular member level.
  3. Member has access to whatever content is assigned to that member level.

Most plug-ins will allow you to set up multiple member levels (silver, gold, platinum, etc.). In some (like MemberMouse), you can also use bundles. Either way, these member levels are like the access control layer between the person and the content.

The member is going to have an account inside of WordPress. The membership plugin adds a layer to the WordPress user account specific to the membership site. And the plugin will control things like access restrictions, account cancellations, etc.

Plug-ins that take the member level approach include:

I won't even try to list them all because MOST WordPress membership site plug-ins work this way. Most people are used to this.

But, there is another approach...

Method #2: Tag-Based Access Control

To understand this one, you need to understand how most modern email marketing CRMs function these days. Because this method is very much tied to your CRM.

In your CRM, each email subscriber can have a series of TAGS on their profile. These tags are often used for list segmentation. 

In a new breed of membership plug-in, you can have a very tight integration between your WordPress site and your CRM. Meaning that your CRM becomes the primary database for your whole site. And, by assigning or removing certain tags from their profile, you can control access on your membership site.

So, a new user flow would look something like this:

  1. Member signs up.
  2. Member is tagged in your CRM as a member.
  3. Member then has access to their member content assigned to that tag.

If you remove the tag from their profile, they lose access to their content.

Now, combine this with modern marketing automation platforms where you can design custom workflows and automations that can trigger things like tag add/removal... and hopefully you can see how this would work. If a person purchased your membership, you would  have an automation that sends them their welcome email, tags them as a member, and whatever else you want done.

For this method to work, you need a real marketing automation platform. You need something that does tagging. And you will need a plug-in on your membership site that can work with your particular CRM and do access control based on the tags.

Plug-ins that take the tag-based approach include:

  • ActiveMember360 (great option if you are using ActiveCampaign)
  • Memberium (great option if you are using Infusionsoft/Keap)
  • AccessAlly
  • WP Fusion (not technically a membership site plugin, but does handle content protections beautifully. And a lot more)

So, that leaves us with a question...

Which Method Is Better?

So, to review, the 2 major approaches are:

  1. Member levels or tiers, set up independently in your membership platform.
  2. Tags in your marketing automation CRM, and your plug-in controls access based on tags

And my opinion is this...

I feel the tag-based approach to membership sites is a more mature, more flexible, and more powerful approach than the level-based setup. It is a level up.

I feel as if Method #1 is "old school". It is what people are used to, but it has limitations. I think Method #2 is a more modern approach and provides a much higher degree of power.

And in my recent migration away from MemberMouse, I decided to use the opportunity not to simply switch to another standard membership site plug-in. Instead, I changed my approach entirely and THE LAB is now running on a tag-based system.

To illustrate why I think this is definitely a better approach, let me spell out some of the annoying issues I had with MemberMouse.

Annoyances Of Using Member Levels Versus Tags For Membership Sites

To be clear, this is not the fault of MemberMouse. I think this is just what happens when you have an intermediary layer like that, combined with the fact that over time as a business owner you end up trying things, selling different offers, etc.

(And I will mention that MemberMouse annoyingly lacks the ability to archive products or levels, merge levels, etc. So, we were left with a list of things in MemberMouse that we could NOT get rid of. [sigh])

Some of the issues I was having were:

Issue #1: A Big List Of Member Levels

Unless you keep things really simple, you're likely to end up with a big list of multiple membership levels to control access to various things.

You might have different subscription levels, of course. But, even if you sell access to individual products without a recurring subscription, you're going to need member levels for those, too. If you used MemberMouse like I did, then a big list of bundles.

Then, you'll have members assigned to all these things. It can become a little overwhelming, depending on how much history you have in the system and how many different things you sell.

Issue #2: Inaccurate Sync With Your CRM

When a person buys something, you also want to add them to your email list and tag them properly. In fact, any action that happens in your membership, you want to keep it synced up in your CRM.

But, when your membership plug-in is the deciding system in your marketing stack, the issue is that you need to keep the CRM synced up. It means your CRM is reacting to the plug-in, not the other way around. If your integration and automations are not designed properly, things can get a little messy.

Now, you could either get really ninja with your integration... or you could just not worry about it. But, the more fancy stuff you do  in your membership site, the harder it can be to deliver targeted email marketing. For instance, if you have a drip-feed of member content and would like to be able to send distinct emails from your CRM based on where they're at, you have to set up proper sync for each level of drip in your CRM.

Long story short... it is more complex when your membership plugin makes all the decisions and is simply sending data to the CRM.

It is SIMPLER when your CRM is the boss and your site reacts to your CRM.

Benefits Of Using A Tag-Based Approach To Your Membership Site

Now, to really grasp this, let's make sure you understand the big picture here yet again.

In Method #1, your membership plug-in is the boss. It simply reports back to your CRM (hopefully) so that you can communicate to them effectively. 

In Method #2, your CRM is the boss. Your site sits there and reacts to your CRM. Everything that happens on your site depends on what's happening in your CRM.

Now...

Combine this with marketing automation and everything that a real marketing automation platform is capable of. Combine this with the fact that you can do conditional content on your site based on tags on their profile.

Hard to see, I know. But, this is my CRM automation for when somebody joins my membership. You don't need to understand it all, but point is... you have an insane amount of flexibility. Way more than any level-based membership.

If you've ever done real marketing automation, the bells start going off here.  As a tech and marketing geek, this gets me excited. 馃檪 Here's some things you can do:

  • When they opt in for one of your lead magnets, you tag them a certain way. When they get into membership, you can now show them content specific to that tag.
  • If a member visits a particular offer page but does not buy it, you can automatically tag them and follow up with an email offer. You could even display conditional content right on the dashboard of your membership site that presents an offer for that same thing.
  • Using your marketing automation platform, you can change content that is displayed on your website.
  • If you want a drip-feed of content, you just set that up in a workflow/automation in your CRM, complete with your own timeline, emails along the way, and anything you want.

And the entire time, there is never a sync issue between your site and your CRM. It is a total integration. Your CRM is the lead.

So, What Did I Replace MemberMouse With?

I have re-designed my software stack to go toward the tag-based approach for this website.

It just made all kinds of sense to do this. Especially since I had made the move that all lead magnets are now being delivered inside THE LAB using a free member account. This setup allows a much more personalized experience for all subscribers.

So, here's the current marketing stack for the Blog Marketing Academy and THE LAB...

  • I use ConvertBox for all email opt-ins. ConvertBox now has a gorgeous ability to control all forms based on tags. Read My ConvertBox Review.
  • I am now processing all orders through ThriveCart. This provides a lot of power when it comes to the funnels, but also simplifies things quite a lot for me. Read my ThriveCart Review.
  • I am now using WP Fusion as my membership control plug-in. A full review is forthcoming.
  • All of this is centered around Drip, which I have been using as my marketing automation CRM for awhile now.

Now, I have a lot I can say and show you about these systems, but let me touch on the basics:

Drip Email Marketing

Drip is a full-featured marketing automation platform. I was with them before they made their branding shift more toward ecommerce. But, despite the brand shift, it remains just as capable as it ever was for an information-based business like mine.

Another thing I really like about Drip is how they have a differentiation between an unsubscribed user and an inactive one. In many systems, what would happen if a paid customer hit the unsubscribe button on your email list? It means you can't even update them on important matters related to their account. With Drip, you can run automation if a person unsubscribes and act differently if they're a customer or not. 

In my setup, here's what happens if they unsubscribe:

  • If they are a customer and they simply don't want marketing emails anymore, I unsubscribe them but they remain active. This means they can still get transactional emails from me. I can still talk to them about their account, for instance.
  • If they are not a customer, I deactivate them. I also delete their free membership from THE LAB, after notifying them that I'm doing so. It is all automated. It's great if you offer a free member level and don't want to clutter up your database with freebie seekers who grabbed their download and immediately unsubscribe.

Drip is awesome. But, if you're using something like ActiveCampaign, it is just as good.

ThriveCart

I reviewed ThriveCart on this site previously. At the time, I sung its praises but had to say that I was not yet using it for my own business. Because I was tied to MemberMouse. But...

Now that I decided to embark on this whole project anyway, I am now running everything through ThriveCart. It does a fantastic job. The whole affiliate program runs through it, too.

What I like most is that:

  • They take care of all the logistics of things working. Less headache.
  • It simplifies things a lot having all the "cart" pages managed separately. With MemberMouse, I had a TON of landing pages I had created for the various funnels. Some of the pages weren't even used anymore but were still present in the system. Controlling flow through the funnel is done with "Confirmation Page" settings in MemberMouse. And it is just really easy to lose track of what the hell is going on over time. With ThriveCart, I can move it all over there and manage it much easier. 

More to come about ThriveCart. 馃檪 But, I'm happy to finally be using it in my business. That lifetime subscription to it that I have now is finally coming in handy. 馃檪

WP Fusion

I will have much more to say about WP Fusion as time goes on. I think this could end up becoming my favorite WordPress plug-in of all time. 馃檪

In essence, WP Fusion is now my membership plug-in. But, I want to be clear... WP Fusion is NOT a membership site plug-in! It handles content protection very well, but you don't have member account management features. And that's because we're no longer using member levels. All that is done in the CRM now.

WP Fusion is a sync layer between your WordPress site and your CRM. It allows you to control what happens on your site using marketing automation.

The awesome thing about WP Fusion is that this is not an either/or choice between it and other membership plug-ins. WP Fusion works with everything. Many people use it right alongside something like Wishlist Member, for instance. Best of all worlds, in that case.

But, I decided to use WP Fusion in a "naked" fashion. 馃檪 No additional membership site plug-in layer. WP Fusion can do all the content protection (and much more). We'll manage member accounts using the ThriveCart/Drip combination.

ConvertBox

Now, technically, this isn't really part of my membership site stack. But, I'm mentioning it because it really brings to light the power of using a tag-based approach to your entire business.

See, ConvertBox is for opt-in forms and calls to actions. That's what it does. However, it also has the ability to have a TWO-WAY integration with your CRM. Meaning, you can control whether people see or not see a call to action based on tags.

This is freakin' POWERFUL and is one of the major reasons I stopped using Thrive Leads and moved to ConvertBox.

Now that my whole business will be centered around marketing automation, it means I can not only control everything they see in the LAB platform using automation, but I can control any opt-ins or calls to action they see on the public portion of BMA. All based on the same CRM (Drip). Even though they are 2 different WordPress sites.

For instance, I'd like to exempt all of my LAB members from seeing opt-ins when they're here on the public blog. Now, I can. As long as ConvertBox knows who they are, I can keep them from seeing opt-ins. 

But, get this...

What if a person opts in for, say, the Membership Site Planning Worksheet. I now know they're interesting in building a membership site. Now, look at what is possible with this setup:

  • Once they're in the LAB, I can present a custom invite to the Membership Site Blueprint training right on their member dashboard.
  • On this blog, instead of showing them opt-ins for something they already got, I can now show them a CTA for the Membership Site Blueprint course. I can even address them by name right here in the call to action.
  • The moment they buy it, this blog will stop showing them a CTA for that. Since they already own it. Perhaps I now show them an upgrade offer to the full LAB.

See how this works?

The entire marketing AND membership experience is now in sync. Personalized. All run right out of the CRM. No multiple records to keep in sync. It is all central to their subscriber profile.

ConvertBox can even be used within a membership site to control followup marketing flow, make member announcements, etc. ConvertBox really is freakin' awesome. I'm so glad I bought a lifetime membership to it.

So That's My New Membership Site Setup

ThriveCart + WP Fusion + DripConvertBox

Yes, there will indeed be much more content coming up about all this - both here and inside THE LAB. And no, it isn't all going to be about the tools I use only. I don't expect you to use only what I use. As you can see, I move around. 馃檪  But...

This stuff excites me. One of the reason why is this...

This very site is called Blog Marketing Academy. This means, of course, that I'm a strong proponent of the marketing power of a blog. But, it goes WAY beyond just what you do with your blog posts.

See, a marketing platform like a blog is more than just WordPress. It is the plumbing that goes behind it. It all works in unison, like a well-oiled machine. When it is set up right.

The membership site model is freakin' awesome for a number of reasons. But, one that many people don't utilize is the lead generation and MARKETING potential of a free membership level.

But, to make it work, you need a seamless system. That's what a marketing automation CRM can do - combined with something like WP Fusion.

I'm not yet done building all that I have in mind here. You'll see more things as I perfect my process using these 4 tools.

A blog can be turned into a powerhouse marketing system. When turned into a membership site business, it can generate a lot of revenue on autopilot.

This is how a blog turns into one hell of an efficient business.

Planning out your membership site? Download this worksheet to guide you through the idea and planning phase of your new membership site - setting you up for maximum signups and income. Click here to grab your copy.


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  • Get blog post is quite interesting.

    A quick question

    what are LMS are you using for your courses?

    Cheers, Adam

    • David Risley says:

      It is a custom job. Basically a custom post type with some custom fields attached.

  • I was wondering and waiting for this post since you announced moving away from MemberMouse. In Feb/2020 I revamped my stack.

    From:
    Thrivecart (Payment)
    Teachable(Content)
    Active Campaign (email)
    Facebook Group (Community)

    To:
    Learndash
    Wishlist Member
    WooCommerce
    SSO with Discourse
    Active Campaign (Email)
    UpeSells via CartFlows

    I’m learning Woo and fixing problems as I go. I thought about WishList with Thrivecart, but Upsells will not be possible. When Wishlist added support for LearnDash and Woo, I decided to use this stack.

    Question: Do you offer upsells with TC? How are you controlling access for content?

    • David Risley says:

      Yes, ThriveCart does upsells just fine. Not sure why you think it isn’t possible. And, when they buy anything (even an upsell) in ThriveCart, I just add them to an automation in Drip. Which adds the tag, which in turn gives them access.

  • this is actually a really cleaver stack – it’s not for everyone, but I would say this would be the nirvana of all memberships, especially if you link it to Learndash or an lms system to help the front end point of view. You have given me some ideas.. thanks you

    • David Risley says:

      Yep, I agree. Not for everybody. And yes, WP Fusion works with several different LMS systems pretty nicely. Really, as long as you’re using a CRM that has tagging and you put something like WP Fusion into the mix, you can work some magic. It is not necessary to use something like Thrivecart, but it has its perks. A lot of WP Fusion users simply use WooCommerce.

  • There’s a real ELEGANCE to what you’ve crafted together here. ThriveCart has excellent options for the sales, recurring, even gliding scale! I am assuming all your accounting / sales tracking will be done with ThriveCart. Drip really has amazing tools as well for workflows. You make the key point that in Drip you can keep Customers in there even if they don’t want your autoresponder/broadcast marketing messages. WP Fusion opens up some amazing possibilities as well. I already purchased ConvertBox from your link last time, and have started experimenting with it. Apparently they are in testing on inline forms, which will be AWESOME!

    Some questions:
    a) What part of the flow is where a member userid/password is created and emailed for new customers?
    b) Have you done the conversion yet? I’m curious how you managed the MMouse part…

    I’m close to making this leap to tag based membership myself. Thanks again for outlining the benefits. Be interesting to hear about the challenges, too.

    Rick

    • David Risley says:

      With WP Fusion, it has webhooks to allow you to automatically create a new account. So, if they’re a free member, I just call a webhook in the Drip automation that creates the user in WordPress. And in the case of a paid member with ThriveCart, WP Fusion actually has a unique integration with ThriveCart so that when you make one of your pages the “Success URL”, you can auto-create the new user with any tags you want, granting them automatic access to whatever they bought.

      WPF also has the option to either trigger a standard WordPress email with login info… or to sync the Password field back to your CRM so that you can send them a branded email using your CRM.

      As for MemberMouse, it remains in place. But, it is only for account purposes of pre-existing members. It received no new orders, and it is doing no content protection. It only serves a billing function. And once (over time) those people have moved on or we migrate them over, we’ll disable it.

      • Rick Wilkes says:

        Very helpful!

        “I just call a webhook in the Drip automation that creates the user in WordPress”

        Is that standard? Or did you do something special in Drip for that?

        I’m getting pretty close to purchasing this stack for my client. I am concerned about the reliability of the Thrivecart -> successURL -> account creation process. The WPFusion documentation seemed straightforward but they seemed to warn about config issues.

        It’s exciting to feel the potential in this stack though!

        Rick

        • David Risley says:

          I noticed the warning about Thrivecart/WPF integration, but I’ve had no issues at all so far. I think the issue might be specific to certain kinds of caching environments.

          And, no, nothing special on the webhooks. WPF gives you a built-in way to do it… and Drip also has the ability to POST to URLs within an automation.

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