If you want to create a membership website that will delight both members and admin staff then this post should help you.
We look at the main functions that most membership websites need and how to achieve them using the best of modern software.
To create a membership website you will need functionality that allows you to do most of the following:
Promote the benefits of membership
Allow people to join online
Manage subscription renewals
Event promotion and booking
Email updates to members
Provide access to restricted website content
Take a moment to prioritise these for your organisation because it will help you decide on the best membership software solution.
All-in-one membership systems
The best place to start is to review software that is specifically designed for membership organisations. Software like this should fulfil the majority of your central requirements.
All-in-one membership systems allow you to build a great website and manage all of your member interactions through one interface.
You may pay a little more for dedicated software like this but you will save a lot of time and you won’t need to worry about the technical legacy of many different systems talking to each other.
Modern membership website software is cloud-based Software as a Service built to serve hundreds if not thousands of customers. The benefits are obvious but it does mean that you won’t get much say in the development of the custom functionality and you may, therefore, have to tweak some of your processes to match the website software rather than vice-versa.
Many all-in-one membership systems have pricing based on the number of members you have. This can increase quite sharply as you grow so plan ahead and make sure it’s affordable.
Here are some of the best all-in-one membership website builders:
Form submissions, event booking, donations, Direct Debit and contact management are all included as standard for a single monthly fee. Pricing is transparent and very competitive.
The strength of the White Fuse platform is its website admin interface. You can create a beautiful membership website that is mobile optimised and handles multiple types of content very easily. The member facing functionality for payments and event bookings is also neatly designed. The focus throughout is on simplicity for administrators and a great experience for members.
Wild Apricot is one of the most well-known membership platforms because it’s one of the oldest. The interface does show signs of age but what it lacks in usability it makes up for in flexibility.
The website builder offers a range of membership website templates but in general, it is limited and harder to use than White Fuse. However, you can use the templates to create a large amount of functionality like membership directories and login-areas just for members. Wild Apricot targets the full range of membership organisations, including charities, foundations, associations, clubs and more.
ClubExpress is another longstanding and popular option. As the name suggests, the primary audience is clubs but the system also supports membership associations of other kinds. Like Wild Apricot, the interface is a little dated but there is a very comprehensive range of both website and database features, like photo galleries and member forums.
Website + database combination
An alternative approach to the all-in-one system is to combine a custom-made website and a CRM database. You should choose this route if you have very custom requirements and need the flexibility to make changes to the system at any time.
This approach should not be taken lightly. You will need to hire competent developers and most likely use open-source software to ensure you can maintain the software long-term.
This a good approach for organisations that have a skilled in-house technical team, unusual requirements and a decent budget for setup and future development.
Wordpress and Drupal
Open source content management systems (CMS) like Wordpress and Drupal are very flexible and if you pair them up with a membership database and a well-resourced development team you can provide a great experience for your members. If you already use an open-source CMS this may reduce your setup development costs but you may find you have to rework parts of your website to add full membership functionality. Try to start simply by using existing modules and plugins.
Membership website plugins for Wordpress
Plugins can help to keep development costs low but you will be limited to their predetermined functionality. You won’t be in control of when these plugins are updated so you take a risk. Always check that plugins are widely used and well supported by the developer community because poor quality plugins are a key reason for many Wordpress website hacks. When you have personal data connected with your open-source CMS it makes getting hacked a high-impact risk. For more on this, read our security guide to avoiding getting hacked and our data protection guide for small charities.
Here are a few popular plugins to get you started (there are many more):
CRM database integration
The easiest way to connect your database to your website is to embed forms. This allows your website visitors to fill in a membership application form and have the information go directly into your database. Nothing is stored or duplicated on the website. This one-way connection is very easy, cost-effective and secure.
Things get complicated quickly if you want a 2-way connection or live synchronisation of data. Features like a members directory, members-only content or member prices for event bookings all require that the member can log in to the website. Sharing member credentials between website and database is complex and expensive to implement.
If you’re committed to this route, can't find a good all-in-one solution and don’t have the budget for expensive solutions, one option to explore is CiviCRM. CiviCRM is an open-source database that works well with Drupal and doesn’t require too much technical work to establish a basic website-database integration. The user and admin experiences are not great and it still requires some good in-house technical expertise.
A third approach is to combine a number of different software solutions together. In this situation, your website sits at the centre of a network of interrelated software products, each dealing with a specific piece of membership functionality.
Most small organisations take this approach, to begin with before transitioning to an all-in-one product.
The biggest frustration voiced by membership organisations using this approach is managing membership data. Many modern SaaS systems offer integrations but data rarely flows seamlessly and is often duplicated. Software like Zapier and PieSync exists purely to help organisations pass data around their network of software applications, but of course solutions like this add yet another piece of software to the mix!
Costs can vary with this approach. If you are very small and take advantage of ‘freemium’ options (i.e. entry-level free packages) then this can be a very cheap way to get started. But as you outgrow free plans and as data management becomes more important to you the prices can start to add up quickly.
Another big advantage of this approach is that it allows you to experiment and learn. You can trial software that deals with one task without affecting the rest of your software setup. However, you won’t have any central support so if your systems don’t talk to each other you need to be able to troubleshoot it yourself.
Find great tools for membership organisations
For each of the 8 requirements outlined in this post, there are lots of different software solutions that you can combine to make a great membership website. We have collated a list of our best software picks in a downloadable guide for you. We provide software recommendations for form embedding, payment processing, membership renewals, contact management, Email marketing and more.