A crash course in creating a membership website in WordPress

So you’ve been tasked with creating a membership website in WordPress. If you are used to designing traditional brochure-ware type websites or even small eCommerce sites, this may feel a little daunting. But it’s not as hard as you might think, and it doesn’t require you to learn any coding unless you want to do things the hard way.

Step 1: Outline your client’s requirements

This step involves asking a lot of questions, but the more time you invest here, the less likely you’ll have major problems from picking the wrong membership plugin. Here are some of the more important questions to get you started, but client priorities can vary widely. For example, some membership organizations MUST have an invoicing feature while others do not need it.

Member billing questions

  • Look at current membership levels, including how and when renewals happen. Are they monthly, annually, quarterly or another option? Are memberships ongoing indefinitely or a fixed term?
  • What types of billing should be offered to members — auto-recurring payments, one-time credit card payments, check payments, ACH, PayPal?
  • Is there a membership trial period, past due fees and/or a new member fee?
  • Is there an approval process for membership?
  • Are memberships based on groups of people (for example, a family with multiple people or a business with multiple employees) or just individuals?
  • Is member invoicing needed and what does that process look like?
  • Are any members on auto-recurring billing right now, and what is the plan for them?
  • Is there a payment gateway that is preferred such as Stripe, PayPal Pro or Authorize.net?

Functionality questions

  • Are there preferred integrations with other software such as Quickbooks, Xero, MailChimp, etc.?
  • Will there be pages or posts that only members or certain levels or types of members can access? What type of content is on those pages and is there a need for drip content?
  • Will the client host events and need an event registration function? Will their members be allowed to add their own events to the group calendar?
  • Will a member directory need to be displayed, and will it be for members only or the public?
  • What other features will be tied to membership such as a forum, job bank, etc.?
  • How many admins will be accessing the system, and what features will each need to be able to access or not access?
    What reports will be needed?

Member data questions

  • If the organization will have a member directory or member profiles, what types of information need to be in those profiles — pictures, videos, documents, links, etc.?
  • What fields should be collected from members?
  • What member history fields will need to be imported, if any (such as join date, past payments or notes, etc.)? Note that you may want to charge clients more if you are having to manipulate data from multiple sources and/or import a large amount of historical data.

Step 2: Ask about budget and research WordPress membership plugins

A crash course in creating a membership website in WordPress

The good news is that there are a huge number of WordPress membership plugins to choose from. But that’s bad news too if you are the one trying to evaluate and narrow down the list of choices. You can start by asking your client about the budget — what setup fees and ongoing fees would be cost-prohibitive? Use the list of requirements to create a spreadsheet where you document their must-have and nice-to-have features. Consider that clients who have more flexibility in terms of fewer must-have features will often:

  • Be able to locate the best membership plugin for their needs more quickly.
  • Find less expensive membership software.

For example, perhaps you have located a plugin that meets all of their needs but doesn’t integrate with their current payment gateway. If the client is willing to switch payment gateways, you have a great match.

Tip: Avoid future support requests and your protect client’s membership data by using a SaaS-based membership plugin instead of just storing the membership database within WordPress. You don’t want to bear full responsibility for the security of that very important data! SaaS plugins are more likely to offer free training and support included with their monthly fee so that you stay out of that loop if you want to.

Step 3: Install and configure the plugin

Once the client signs up for an account or purchases the membership plugin, have them forward you the welcome email as well as login credentials. Then you can install the plugin on your development site and get rolling. The next steps are:

  • Set up the payment gateway.
  • Build WordPress pages for the signup form, member login, event calendar, and online directory by using WordPress shortcodes and widgets provided by your membership plugin. This might feel premature, but by building these pages now, you’ll be able to see what a front end user will experience as you review your work in the following steps.
  •  Set up the membership levels.
  • Create a test member. It’s a good idea to assign a membership level and expiration date to the member. Use this member to test out the member self-manage template and see how member only content restriction works.
  • Create event categories and add in the first event (or have your client add it in as a training exercise).
  • Customize the membership sign up form, member management template, and admin views to add and remove fields and features relevant to the organization.
  • Customize the directory template.
  • Create member only pages in WordPress. Often this will be as easy as adding a shortcode to a page to make it password-protected.
  • Set up admin accounts for your client’s staff members with appropriate access for each person.

Step 4: Customize system emails

The easiest way to do this is to copy all of the default messages that the system might send out into one big Google doc. These messages would include:

  • Renewal notices for each membership level,
  • Welcome emails for each membership level,
  • Upgrade emails,
  • Renewal thank you emails,
  • Payment receipts,
  • Auto-recurring billing error notices,
  • Invoice templates,
  • Event confirmation emails and more.

There may be one place or a couple of places to look within the membership system to find all of them. Share this Google doc with your client and have them do their edits. Once they are done you can plug the messages back into the software. It’s important to be sure that the client did not alter any message tags that might populate member data into the emails; you don’t want those tags to be broken. A final step is to test the notices yourself or ask your client to do so to verify that tags populate, links work, the email looks good on mobile devices, etc.

Step 5: Import members

If your client is starting a new enterprise and does not yet have members, you can skip this step. Your membership plugin Help documentation will come in handy here. You’ll learn how to set up your spreadsheet for importing. Some critical fields to import will be named (both the person’s name as well as their organization name in a separate field), email address, membership level, and next renewal date. Labels can also be imported with each member as well as additional contacts on the membership (in the case of group memberships). The amount of other fields you bring in depends upon what your client needs and how much history they are trying to bring in.

Step 6: Migrate the domain, set up SSL and test transactions

You’ll want to migrate the domain (which means taking the site to live at the final URL) before purchasing a security certificate. It goes without saying that the site will need to have an SSL certificate. You may need to buy one from the host (some hosts offer these for free), migrate an existing certificate or buy one from your membership plugin provider if they are providing your hosting. In general, go with the path of least resistance. Migrating a certificate can be a little tricky; you may have to bill the client more than it would cost for them to just buy a new certificate. You might want to use a force HTTPS plugin to ensure that all pages are secure; consult with your host on their preferred approach.

Once SSL is active, it’s important to do a real test transaction to make sure all systems are working before members start coming to the site. Check to be sure that the money makes its way into the payment gateway. You can refund yourself afterward. Don’t forget to test out any integrations with the client’s accounting software, email marketing platform, etc.

Step 7: Train your client

Not every developer likes to train their clients, but some enjoy offering training as an additional line item on the proposal. Consider that some membership plugin providers offer free training and support, so you can tell your client to work directly with them on this task. However, a trainer won’t be as familiar with how you have set up the system, so training might be best done by you.

As far as what to cover in a training session, an overview of how a member would interact with the system is a good place to start. Also, make a checklist of things the client will need to do on an ongoing basis — such as enter check payments — and train them on admin functions like that. If you use a project management system during the development process, you and the client can add training topics and questions to a to do list there as they arise.

Step 8: Launch and announce to members

Launch and announce to members

Once the new WordPress website is live and you’ve had a few days to hear about any kinks that need fixing, the client should send out a message to their members announcing the new website or new membership system. The message should include a list of new features that the new membership platform enables for the organization. This might include announcing:

  • A member directory,
  • Member-only events,
  • Access to member-only content,
  • The ability to update their billing information and more.

Members should be given instructions as to how to log into the website to edit their profile. You might ask the client to run the message by you to make sure they’ve gotten the details correct.

Step 9: Celebrate!

You have launched a membership website in WordPress, which is no small feat. With this skill set under your belt and a new website in your portfolio, you are in a position to attract new clients who have similar needs. Luckily for you, building membership websites is more profitable than creating a typical WordPress site without bells and whistles. Sure there is more work involved, but the increased time on this type of project is all billable. Congratulations!

Amy Hufford is a Technologist at MembershipWorks. With 20 years in the membership software space, Amy has worked with more than 15 email marketing systems and more than 10 different membership management platforms, including custom-coded membership solutions.