When I first set up Affiliate Marketing Insights website, I wanted to incorporate membership capability into the site although I had no plan to offer paid membership (yet) for my readers. By default, WordPress supports member registration but it is mainly used for publishing purpose (author, editor, contributor) rather than true multi-level membership.
So, like any cash-strapped marketers I started by looking for free WordPress membership plugins in WordPress repository, installed and tested them, and searched for more plugins (free or paid) for comparison.
My criteria to select the most suitable membership plugin are:
- Easy to use and intuitive.
I admit that this point is very subjective. Each system has some learning curve but at least it shouldn’t be too much of a rocket science to set up. I want to set up my membership site as soon as possible without spending a month reading the documentations.
- Supports free membership.
This is probably a given in any membership plugins.
- Flexible membership structure.
When people are talking about structuring membership site, the common example given is hierarchical structure such as bronze/silver/gold/premium where one level is higher than another and they are multiple levels of the same product. However, I may also need to create totally separate products where each product has different contents and possible multiple levels.
- Flexible content protection.
I foresee that I will share downloadable files for my free members (folder/file protection) and probably offer premium contents in the future (post/page protection). Can I choose to completely hide the entire post or just part of it?
- Content dripping.
This is an important feature, in my opinion, for any membership site. One topic that I see discussed many times is how to minimize the problem where someone buys your training program, immediately downloads all the contents and then asks for refund. While this can’t be avoided entirely, spacing or dripping contents also has the benefit of controlling the pace of the training and at the same time build your relationship with your members.
- 3rd party integration.
This is integration with 3rd party services related to membership site operation such as payment processor, email autoresponder, etc. Integration with major providers is a must, the more the better so I have more options and not limited to certain providers.
Below are the 3 membership plugins for WordPress that I collected from my research, some are tested more extensively than the others.
Digital Access Pass
This is the membership plugin that I eventually use because it ticks all the list. The main selling point for Digital Access Pass is its true content drip where you can set which content goes out when for each membership product, much like setting up email autoresponder series. In the latest version you can even re-arrange content sequence by drag-and-drop. After comparing how content drip works in other plugins, I think this feature alone is worth the license price.
Setting up membership level is done through creating products. Besides individual pricing and content sequence, every product can have its own customized sales page, landing page, welcome email, and even email autoresponder series. I find the way Digital Access Pass structure the system very intuitive and straightforward.
Digital Access Pass also has the most 3rd party integration for payment processor and email autoresponder including WSO Pro and JVZoo which may come handy if you are selling on Warrior Forum (and you can have dime sale too). The latest stable version 4.3.1 also supports offline payment by check.
Other plus point of Digital Access Pass is that it has built-in email broadcasting and autoresponderso I can set up email newsletter right from Digital Access Pass itself. If you are just starting and don’t have any list yet, this feature will save you the mailing list monthly subscription.
Similarly it also has built-in affiliate program (1-tier and 2-tier) so your members can be assigned affiliate ID automatically if you wish. If you already have 3rd party affiliate program like iDevAffiliate, as long as it can receive API notification then you can use the plugin framework to send notification upon subscription, cancellation, etc. This applies for email autoresponder as well and I’ve made one for my Mad Mimi account which is not supported out of the box.
As for content protection, you can choose whether you want to protect the whole post/page so it completely disappear unless user has the right access level, or protect just part of the content using shortcodes. It also supports category, file, URL and RSS protection.
Overall, I’ve been using Digital Access Pass for around 6 months and very happy with it. It may be more expensive than other plugins but considering that I don’t need separate email autoresponder, separate affiliate program, and separate shopping cart system it may actually be a bargain. Workflow is very easy, it’s well documented, support from developers have always been fast every time I open a support ticket.
s2Member / s2Member Pro
s2Member was actually the first WordPress membership plugin that I found and tested because it’s available for free from WordPress plugin repository. What impressed me on the first look is that the start-up guide is included in the plugin itself and every section of the option panels are clearly explained.
The main difference between s2Member and s2Member Pro, which is the paid version, is s2Member Pro has more payment processors and you can have Custom Capabilities for both free and paid memberships as opposed to only for paid membership in the free version.
Creating membership product in s2Member is a combination of deciding the membership level (level 0 is for free product, level 1-4 is for paid product) and assigning Custom Capabilities (it’s something like privileges) to it. This feature is powerful for creating many product combinations.
One thing that I don’t like is you need to enter post/page ID to lock posts and pages instead of being able to select from a list. I find this a bit troublesome and makes it difficult to quickly check if I get the settings correct or add/remove contents. Let’s hope they improve this in the next versions. However, s2Member is the only WordPress membership plugin that I know that supports content protection by tags in addition to the usual protection by post, page, category, and URL.
Content dripping is achieved through API scripting using PHP conditional statements in the content itself. This is taken from their blog:
In order to use Content Dripping, you need to have a plugin installed on your WordPress® site that allows you to execute PHP inside of Posts and Pages. We recommend PHP Execution. We also recommend a bit of knowledge of PHP, because there currently is no Shortcode Equivalent for this feature.
Basically you will use conditional statements inside the content to hide/reveal part of it. Certainly there is a lot of room for improvements for content drip workflow and they are planning for something better in the next major release.
Due to the way s2Member structure the membership (level + custom capabilities), it’s not possible for someone to have multiple recurring subscriptions. Users can pay multiple one-time products but not multiple recurring subscriptions. I found this info in the forum and thought worth mentioning here.
Two email autoresponders are integrated in the default install, AWeber and MailChimp, but you can use other 3rd party autoresponder using the notification API so no problem here. Integration with affiliate programs like iDevAffiliate and ShareASale is similarly done using API Tracking codes.
s2Member Pro has the ability to create coupon codes for your affiliates which is great to encourage your affiliates to promote your products.
Overall, s2Member is a great membership plugin for WordPress but prepare to do some scripting, especially if you have complex product offering structure. The fact that it has free version is a big plus especially for beginner marketers. However, I find that the workflow is less intuitive for me compared to Digital Access Pass.
aMember, just like Digital Access Pass, is not a true WordPress plugin but rather a standalone application integrated into WordPress via plugin. aMember is also one of the first membership scripts and very popular among internet marketers. Recently aMember v4 was released which is a major overhaul from v3, both in functionalities and interface.
One thing that should be noted is v3 has impressively more than 100 integration plugins but not all of them are ported for v4 yet. So make sure you check with the developer first if your 3rd party system/application is supported in v4.
There are many payment processors supported such as PayPal, 1ShoppingCart, 2CheckOut, Authorize.Net, ClickBank, ccBill, Plimus, WorldPay, etc. It has fallback payment processor feature where if a user fails to make payment using the selected payment processo, aMember will return to the payment page so user can select another payment method. This feature is very useful so user doesn’t have to re-do the registration process from the beginning which can be a put-off. aMember can be integrated with WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, phpBB, SimpleMachines, IPB, vBulletin, iDevAffiliate, Kayako, etc. I believe aMember has the most integration with CMS/blog and forum scripts compared to other plugins.
aMember comes with its own newsletter & autoresponder system, shopping cart, affiliate system, and helpdesk. Again, this saves you money because you don’t have to sign up with 3rd party system or buy separate script. I tried to set up autoresponder series for my test products but after adding few emails, I find that aMember does not group them by products and I can’t sort them by products either (the column is not sortable). So if I have multiple products and each having its own autoresponder series, the list can grow quickly and without the ability to filter or sort the emails it can be quite a headache to maintain.
There are 2 ways to integrate WordPress to aMember, one is from aMember admin panel and the other is through WordPress plugin. During my test, I could not make the integration in aMember admin panel work. I have followed the documentation to add WordPress installation details but I can’t see WordPress contents when trying to protect the posts. Integration through installing WordPress plugin works fine though.
Creating signup form is very easy using the form editor where you can drag-n-drop form components such as product, payment method, name, address and customize each component further. I like the simplicity of the editor and I can also create separate signup form for each product or product set. However, customizing the form layout heavily to match your WordPress or website theme is not so straightforward. There’s an option to select the form template in the form builder but how to actually create the template is not explained clearly in the documentation.
You can protect WordPress posts/pages as well as standalone pages, URLs, files and folders through aMember. I set my blog to display chronological posts and during my test, however, I could not make a post completely disappear from the front page. So if I don’t set excerpt for a particular post, aMember displays the entire content although I was browsing as non-logged in visitor. It correctly redirected me to the login page when I access the post through its permalink. This is a big flaw in my opinion because if I have premium contents, I want them to completely disappear as if they don’t exist unless someone has the right access level. This was a big thing that prevented me from putting aMember on top of my shortlist.
My conclusion for aMember Pro is it’s a solid, all inclusive product with good track record. Considering v4 was relatively new, there are some kinks that need to be iron out especially porting the integration plugins and adding more documentations.