Are WordPress Membership Sites Dead?

I remember my first experience with the membership model in WordPress. It was in 2008 while I was working at iThemes that I was able to meet Stu McClaren and Tracy Childers, co-founders of WishList Member, for the very first time. They were offering a WLM workshop in Las Vegas that was packed with people who had paid great money to learn about the power of WordPress membership sites. Every attendee was mesmerized by the presentation that Stu and Tracy offered, and at the end of the session when WLM announced a new certification program, the crowd couldn’t sign up fast enough. It was insane! I was convinced that membership websites would be a very hot and lucrative market to be in from that day forward.


There is Gold in Them Hills!

The membership website model explosion has been incredible to watch. Years ago there were only a handful of these membership sites and now there are thousands. Chris Brogan and CopyBlogger were catalysts for giving this type of business model it’s credibility. They showed the online world that people were willing to pay for great content or information. Many other like minded entrepreneurs followed suit, hoping to prosper in the gold rush happening right before their eyes.

The membership business model has been a very profitable venture for many people, but those gold rush days may soon be a thing of the past as the market has become flooded with prospectors all fighting for a place to mine for their gold.

Will WordPress membership sites become nothing more than ghost towns?

If you’ve been in the industry as long as I have, you have likely noticed several “gold rush fads” that have come and gone over the years. Our world revolves around trends. Some burn out quickly and others take a while to fade away. But come and go they will.

The membership website model is now at it’s height in the adoption curve. This is evident by the vast number of people launching content restricted websites to their target audiences and the increase of WordPress plugin developers who are creating new membership plugins. As more and more people seek them riches in the hills, it will affect the landscape or the opportunities for those entering the market place in the hopes of making any real money. The boom will eventually become a bust.

I’ve had the opportunity to work with many wonderful membership sites since 2008. Some of these websites have generated millions of dollars in revenues and others have struggled to survive, yet I’ve noticed one common trait that they all share and that is the need to always be building your audience and providing valuable new content on a regular basis. If you don’t, your business is dead.

Membership sites have a high customer turnover rate.

Membership sites can be a revolving door of customers. People get excited and sign up quickly to be a part of your community, but that excitement usually wears off in three to six months. Then they leave and you have to find others to replace them, especially if you want to maintain your “passive income” at a certain level of revenues. In addition to this problem, you have to be aware of the membership site junkies who simply thrive on launching with you and then quickly jump ship to the next big thing. They move from site to site, often taking other members with them. It can be a plague.

Unless you build hardcore brand evangelists who are committed to your cause and you keep them engaged with new content, your membership site will become another ghost town.

There is still gold in them hills, but you will have to work harder to find it.

Online education is a very hot market and it’s not going away anytime soon. There’s a growing demand for online learning because it’s more efficient and cost-effective than the traditional bricks and mortar route, plus relevant content for today’s needs can be delivered immediately, which is extremely valuable for the end user. Membership websites will still be one of the best ways to deliver this training and education, but simply launching a membership site is not going to give you the riches you might have hoped for.

The challenge facing you now is that everyone with a WordPress site and the right plugins can be a content producer. Accessibility to amazing products has leveled the playing field and given everyone endless possibilities. This has opened up a land run of sorts for people who are all trying to stake their claim in the membership model landscape. As wonderful as this is, it will also require that you work harder than ever to mine for that gold.

There is more to membership sites than installing iThemes Exchange or Restricted Content Pro. It takes a lot of hard work, a faithful audience, and sometimes luck to create a community that is willing to invest in your idea. You will have to stand out of the crowd or focus on a very defined niche to be successful. There is no more room for the “set it and forget it” mentality if you want to build a profitable business with this model. Creating content and new revenue streams will always be a part of your daily activities.

Membership websites are not dead models, but they are changing.

If you want to be successful in online education or training, you are going to have to adapt to the changing needs of your audience. You will likely want to consider selling your content in chunks or as a per course fee. You will want to deliver your content in a way that keeps your customers engaged or moving forward on a weekly basis. You can still find the gold in those hills, but you will definitely have to implement new methodologies or practices to do it.

In my next post, I’ll share some of my successes and failures in the membership website industry and how using this information may help you to find your own gold in the online education and training marketplace.

  • Chris Langille

    Couldn’t agree more man, you almost have to be “first to market” if you want to build a loyal following. There are so many people doing it now

    • James Dalman

      First to market is a bonus, but even if you can create a better membership site than the first mover, you can still build an awesome community.

      The problem is that there are so many people doing the same thing now that you have to differentiate yourself substantially or move into a new market or niche.