Membership Software - A Guide to the 27 Most Important Things to Consider
A Guide to the 27 Most Important Things to Consider When Buying Membership Software for Your Website
Membership software is being used by more and more bloggers, small businesses, publishers and organizations, to add subscription functionality to their websites and blogs.
Some want to introduce free membership, to restrict access to certain parts of their site. Others want to add paid membership, so they can charge access to premium content. Either way they will need to look for membership software or services to make it happen.
The first thing to say is if you haven’t already got a website, it is much easier to build it from the outset with membership software integrated rather than trying to bolt-on membership software to an existing site later.
This checklist of features, which is based on four years experience of building free and paid membership sites, should help you make sure you get what you need.
I have split the list into two parts.
- Part 1 – The features your membership software should have
- Part 2 – The features your website should have if you are creating your membership site from scratch
Membership Software Checklist
Feature #1 – Integrated Login and Password Access
The key to running a membership site is being able to protect some or all of the content from public view. Usually this means placing the premium pages in a members area, accessible via a login page. This sounds simple, but the challenge is in linking password protection to the member database and the content management service. Only with full integration will you have control over who can see what and for how long.
Feature #2 – Member Database
At the heart of all membership software is a database which collects the information from your customers. The amount of information gathered varies from site to site. Free membership sites may only collect email addresses. High priced business sites may collect a lot of detailed data, including name, address, country, company, position, association membership, etc.
Irrespective of what your immediate requirements are I would recommend that you ensure the membership software you use allows you to choose and edit the amount of personal data you collect.
The member database should be searchable, exportable and easy to customize.
Feature #3 – Integrated Payment Processing
As with the database functionality, even if you don’t plan on taking payment for membership at the outset I would recommend that you choose membership software that has payment processing integrated. You can never be sure how your site will evolve.
Good membership software will integrate with PayPal and also offer you a choice of at least two other payment gateway providers in more than one country (e.g. Authorize.net, SagePay, etc). The latter will allow you to use your own merchant services account and credit card processing to sign up members.
Feature #4 – Multiple Membership Levels
Many membership sites have more than one level of membership e.g. bronze, silver and gold. The membership software you choose should enable you to easily assign content, members and password protection to multiple membership levels.
Feature #5 – Trial, Free and Paid Membership
There is rarely a single type of membership. A good membership site may have free membership with limited access, time-restricted trial membership to all of the premium content and paid membership for long-term access to the premium areas of the site. Make sure you have this same kind of flexibility.
Feature #6 – Multiple Payment Plans
Even simple subscription sites can require multiple unique payment plans. For example - a site with bronze, silver and gold membership levels, offering monthly, quarterly or annual subscriptions to customers paying in US dollars, Euros or Sterling potentially needs 27 different payment plans!
The membership software you choose should provide the flexibility to easily set plans up and manage them. More advanced services will give you the option to link prices to live foreign exchange data. This is only important if you want all your customers around the world paying exactly the same amount all of the time.
Feature #7 – Content Security
One of the biggest problems of adding third-party membership software to an existing website is protecting the content on your existing pages. Plug-in software usually puts a login screen between the existing content and the website visitor. Savvy internet users can usually find a way around these barriers. Often it is as easy as typing the URL of a protected page into the browser.
Website platforms which have fully integrated membership management can build a wall that completely encircles your content making it impossible for hackers to get to it.
When reviewing membership software ask how protected your content will be and under what circumstances could it be accessed without authorization.
Feature #8 – Automated Customer Messages
When a customer signs up for membership to your site they should automatically receive one or more email messages confirming their details and welcoming them. For paid membership websites there are legal requirements to send customers an invoice, cancellation policy and your contact details. All of these emails should be customizable and fully automated within the membership software.
Feature #9 – Automated Renewal or Membership Suspension
Hopefully your site will attract hundreds or even thousands of members. They will all join on different days and will have different renewal dates. Some will be monthly, others annual. Managing renewals manually quickly becomes a full time job.
The membership software you choose should fully automate this process. It should automatically take payments for monthly customers and notify you if a credit card fails. It should send out reminders to annual customers and suspend the passwords of people who don’t renew.
Feature #10 – Showing “Teaser” Content
A common practice for membership websites is to show all website visitors the title and a brief description of every article. When the visitor clicks to read more the rest of the article is hidden, with instead a custom invitation to subscribe displayed. This is very useful functionality which will increase your sign-up rate.
Feature #11 – Forgotten Password
Many of your members will forget their password. The membership software should have a way of automatically verifying who a user is and emailing out a new password. If it can’t do this you will end up wasting a huge amount of time manually sending out passwords to your frustrated customers.
Feature #12 – “Remember Me”
Another related feature is having ‘remember me’ functionality which keeps users logged in on a particular computer for a pre-determined length of time.
Feature #13 – Member Chosen Passwords
Some of the basic membership software automatically generates random passwords for subscribers and then does not provide a way for them to change the issued password to something that is more memorable. If your users are forced to use a password you have given them, research has shown they will login less often and will be less likely to renew when their subscription runs out.
Building Your Membership Website From Scratch
As mentioned in the introduction to this article, it is much easier to start a website with membership already integrated. Adding third-party membership software to an existing website or blog is never seamless or completely secure.
If you are starting a website from scratch, these are the additional features it should have:
Feature #14 – A Simple Control Panel
The more time you spend undertaking administrative tasks, the less time you are spending building your online business.
To minimize tedious admin tasks, you should ensure that when your website is up and running you have a single control panel, from which you can undertake all of your routine tasks, like adding content, changing payment plans, accessing your member database and looking at your web stats.
Unfortunately, when you add third-party membership software it is almost impossible to add the membership administration interface to an existing control panel. However, if you go with an all-in-one membership website service you should get this single dashboard.
Feature #15 – Excellent Content Management
A content management service / system (CMS) enables you to add text articles, images and video clips to your website, without needing any technical skills.
As an online publisher you must have complete control over adding, editing and removing your content, without having to know about HTML or any other kind of web coding. The CMS should also allow you to edit your site’s navigation.
Content management MUST be at the heart of your website.
Feature #16 – Customizable Design
You will want to continually tweak and change your website design.
You, or your designer, should have access to a design interface where tweaks can be easily made, or a completely new design can be added. Today the most flexible way of managing your design is using Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). Make sure whatever website software or platform you choose allows CSS.
Feature #17 - Image Library
Images are an important and often overlooked part of a good website.
Your CMS should have the capability to manage images so they can be inserted into any page, with clear labeling (alt-tags) and the ability to make them link to other content or third-party websites.
Feature #18 – Multimedia Content
Today it is expected that an information-driven website will have content in multiple formats including text, images, audio and video. Even if you don’t plan on using these formats today, make sure your website is enabled to publish them in the future.
Multimedia content is one of the most important advantages that an online publication has over its print competitors. Use this advantage.
Feature #19 – ‘Plug-In’ Functionality
When you start your membership website you can never be sure how it will develop. Therefore you need to have the ability to easily add new functionality as it is required. Better still, consider using a managed service which is continually being upgraded with the latest features. Then all you need to do is turn them on when you need them.
Feature #20 – Enable Multiple Revenue Streams
Many website owners, who are focused on charging a membership fee for access to premium content, ignore other revenue making opportunities such as:
- showing advertisements on free content pages
- adding affiliate links related to the sites subject
- selling physical or digital products via an online shop
- promoting and selling offline events
Most successful membership websites have multiple revenue streams. Consider other ways you can generate income from your site and make sure the functionality can be enabled or added to make them possible (e.g. a shopping cart, adserver, event booking form, etc).
Feature #21 - Download Library
Most content websites provide their readers and members with downloads. These could be reports, ebooks, software programs, video clips or audio files.
Your website should make it easy for you to upload and manage downloads, so they are accessible to your site visitors.
Feature #22 – Search Engine Optimization
You must have a website that is very easy for the search engines to index. Any web developer worth his salt will be able to optimize the code to make it easy for Google and the other search engines to find and index all the pages on your site.
Any good managed website platform should be highly optimized from the outset, so you don’t need to worry about anything, other than adding great quality content.
Feature #23– Relationship Building Applications
Once you get visitors coming to your website you need to start building a relationship with them to encourage them to return.
The most important applications for building online relationships are:
- email newsletters
- RSS feeds
- comment fields under articles
- member profiles
Good platforms will have this stuff integrated. Some membership software will have additional plug-ins so it can be added.
Feature #24 – Webstats and Management Information
You should be able to easily access all the information about how your website is performing in a single web statistics report. This should include the number of visitors and page views; the time spent on the website and most popular pages; where your traffic is coming from and much more.
Only when you have this information at your fingertips will you be able to understand how your site is performing and the needs of your customers.
You can integrate web statistics software on your server (e.g. AW Stats), or plug in a third party service like Google Analytics.
Feature #25 – Monitoring, Security and Backup
New website owners underestimate the hassle involved with managing hosting, security, maintenance, data backups and upgrades. Often they use free open source software on a cheap host to launch their site. This usually results in downtime, lost data and hours of wasted time trying to sort out technical problems.
Non-technical people should avoid managing the technical, security and back-up side of their website. This tedious stuff can consume a lot of time for very little gain. Either use a fully managed service which includes all this stuff or use a development company who will do it for you
Feature #26 - Future-Proof
You need your website to grow with your business, so the design, functionality and scalability should be flexible enough to meet your target audience's changing needs. If you are buying software you need to understand how often it is updated, how much the updates cost and whether the new releases are backward compatible with the software you have.
Feature #27 - Support
I have put support last, but it should be amongst your highest priorities.
When you are running a membership website your time is the most valuable resource you have. You need to be able to focus on creating content, marketing and managing your clients - not worrying about bandwidth, hosting, backup, upgrades and fixing bugs.
Good support, by people who really understand both the technology and online publishing is vital to your success!
Online publishing and running a membership website is one of the most exciting business opportunities on the Internet today. It is still in its infancy, but established enough that you will not have to reinvent the wheel. Everything you need to be successful is available and accessible to novices and experts alike.
Put time and thought into your early decisions and you should quickly have a thriving business built around a future-proof website.
Use this checklist to review any membership software services you are considering. Also take the time to look at hosted and fully managed membership site software, such as that offered by SubHub Membership Software. They can accelerate launch and make the day-to-day running of the site a real pleasure.
Enjoy and good luck!
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