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Every membership website has different needs – sometimes very different. The wise choice is to consider my specific requirements and find the premium membership plugin for WordPress (aka membership website software) that best fulfills the needs for my specific project.
Along with the specific needs of a project, where there are mostly small differences between plugins, is the cost.  This is one area where the differences are stark.

TL;DR?  Scroll down to the bottom of the post for a comparison table

To recap, a membership plugin will allow a website owner to make certain website content available only to paid site members (ie premium content). The plugin will also handle payments, which will hopefully be recurring at specified periods with automatic payments.
Here are the specific features I required (aka dealbreakers), followed by a list of nice to have but not necessary needs.

I checked out way more options than the contenders...
I checked out way more options than the contenders…

Must have project features

1. Automatic, recurring billing – with Stripe
I know Paypal is most popular but I still recall the days when they would hold accounts hostage without giving any reason.  I still don’t trust them.  On the other hand, Stripe is dead easy (just CCs), accepts a zillion different currencies and automatically transfers funds after 2 days.  A couple of years ago Stripe integration was rare, now it’s almost the norm so this should be easy.
2. Affiliate program with recurring commissions
Content creators on my site also have the opportunity to earn commissions from referring new members.  Since the membership subscription is a monthly payment, commissions should be monthly as well.
3. Public excerpts
The one problem with locking down a ton of content is that Google can’t see it either.  So content excerpts need to be visible to the public – and to Google.
4. Category-based protection
For a multi-author site, managing protection is much easier if specific categories can be protected or available to specific membership levels.

Update

In practice category protection turned out to be a problem *for my use case*, because you can’t place content in both protected and free categories without the content being protected. The protection (sensibly) overrides the free category – and this is something I didn’t consider when I initially wrote this post. Category protection may make sense for your purposes but it did not for my specific site.

5. Multiple products per person
What if 1 membership option doesn’t cut it?  What if some custom products, like deep eCourses, are wanted?  It would suck if a member could only own one product (or one membership level) at a time.  Some membership plugins are geared towards a tiered system where users can go up & down in levels; this restriction could be problematic down the road.

Nice-to-have but not necessary project features

  • Trial periods
    It would be nice to offer a trial period because my site will not offer refunds.  So instead of joining for 30 days, it would be cool to have something like a 3, 5 or 7 day trial.
  • Digital download sales
    I can see selling eBooks down the road and I don’t want to add an eCommerce system with separate payment options to handle it.  The ideal plugin will at least be able to do this and at best would do it in a great, usable way.
  • Content dripping
    This would be useful for eCourses by providing access to content on a specified schedule. It goes hand-in-hand with allowing multiple products per person.
  • Protected forums
    If the community asks for it, I’ll need to provide a forum.  Some plugins don’t protect forums and some do it out of the box.

Calculating the annual costs for WordPress membership plugins

The cost of a plugin includes the plugin itself and any addons required to fulfill needs.  In almost all cases, the costs are annual as a single purchase provides support and updates for 1 year (hey – it’s passive recurring income, definitely a smart idea).  The only cases where this does not apply is for products with monthly subscriptions.

The contenders for the premium membership plugin for WordPress

While this seems like a 6 horse race, there are a LOT of options out there.  These are the 6 that I boiled it down to – you can see the picture earlier in the post of how many I checked out.
iThemes Exchange

iThemes Exchange (annual cost $446)

I bought their Developer Suite last year and have found it extremely useful (especially BackupBuddy for backing up and migrating websites). Their support is also consistently excellent and as an eCommerce plugin, selling digital downloads is a piece of cake.  Their online documentation is solid.
I wouldn’t consider alternatives if not for a few experiences I’ve had: 1) their Invoices plugin is half-assed and buggy, making me question their abilities; an Exchange update broke one of my sites and should not have been released (it was fixed the next day); their Membership plugin has no trials or custom periods.
Memberpress

Memberpress (annual cost $99)

Memberpress has a ton going for it – robust features (second only to MemberMouse), an affiliate system by the same developers and a killer price of $99/yr for everything.
My biggest concern with them is ease of use because they have a rules-based system that seems very powerful but also potential confusing.  These rules are also used to handle digital downloads by protecting file URLs; I’m not sure how this will play out in actual use.
I’ve just used them briefly for a client project but not long enough to have a definitive opinion.  Their pre-sales support is solid & responsive, and their online documention is good.
MemberMouse

Membermouse (annual cost $439)

Feature-wise, MemberMouse is tops, period.  The have every feature that the other contenders have, and also include gifting, split-testing, group buys, upsells & downsells.  And that’s just for Starter accounts – Advanced accounts add deeper analytics, lifetime value calculations, member login with Facebook/Twitter/G+ and integration with UserVoice for support.  It’s clear that they have considered membership websites from every angle. I’ve found their pre-sales help (via Twitter, no less) to be really good and their online documentation is deep and detailed (they’re tops here too).
MemberMouse is the only plugin that charges a monthly subscription, starting at $20 a month for 1,000 members.  Some folks have issues with this, considering it to be a much, much costlier option in the long run.  I don’t have a problem with it because we want to use to produce income.  Even if you charge a paltry $1 for a monthly membership, that’s $1,000 of income a month that you’re paying $20 for – not bad at all.
On the high end they offer 100,000 members for $300/mo or unlimited for $600/mo. If you have that many members there is no way that you can consider MemberMouse expensive.  They are practicing what they preach and I respect them for charging more as their product increases in value to business owners.
My one concern would be handling digital downloads, which is done via an integration with the free Download Manager plugin.  I do think that sounds better than just protecting URLs like Memberpress does.
They don’t include an affiliate system but support iDevAffiliate, AffiliateWP and a few more options. Despite being more deeply integrated, I’m immediately turned off by iDevAffiliate because they have 8 – yes 8 – pricing options (that probably makes Steve Ballmer salivate). I prefer AffiliateWP because it’s cheaper than iDev and their pre-sales support has been truly superb.
Paid-Memberships-Pro

Paid Memberships Pro (annual cost $147)

I have a lot of experience with PMPro as I use them at www.SunriseProWebsites.com to sell monthly paid websites.  They cover all the typical features at a great price point.  They are, however, geared a little bit more toward developers in their approach and the account management is not as friendly as other options.
I’ve also paid for their support, which will pay for itself with one major problem resolved.  But – and this is a big but – their support quality has slipped a LOT in the past 3 months.  I used to get responses within 24 hours and it started to slip.  Now I have a couple of unanswered questions and two major unresolved issues.
They also have one fatal flaw that completely knocks them out of contention for me: a member can only own 1 product (ie 1 membership level) at a time.  That’s ok for a simple membership site, but it’s a very distinct lack of flexibility that hampers my possibilities. But due to their cost and everything else, they might be perfect for a different project.
Restrict Content Pro

Restrict Content Pro (annual cost $261)

I was unfamiliar with Restrict Content Pro until I read about it here and here (I highly recommend both those sites for further reading & research on WordPress membership plugins). RCP is well regarded and cover most of the bases when it comes to features at a reasonable cost (most of the price is for AffiliateWP, which RCP’s creator Pippin Williamson also has a hand in).
I’ve come away impressed and would definitely consider it.  It does lack one feature that I didn’t note – support for GetResponse (which is my mailing list service of choice due to offering unconfirmed subscriptions).  Some of the same folks are also behind Easy Digital Downloads, but EDD & RCP work side-by-side rather than together. There is a plugin to give discounts on EDD purchases to RCP members but that’s about it as far as working together.
WooCommerce

WooCommerce (annual cost $556)

WooCommerce is the most popular WordPress shopping cart plugin and is worth a look just for that reason.  Since it can handle physical and digital products, it might be a great option for memberships as well. Woo takes the same approach as PMPro and iThemes in that the base plugin is free and extra functionality costs more – enough so to be the most expensive option I looked at.
Woo won’t suit my needs because it can’t protect WordPress categories, there’s no mailing list integration and it does not drip content at all. But if you needed a full on shopping cart and those features weren’t necessary for you, Woo would be a great option.

And then there were 2: MemberMouse and Memberpress

Feature-wise they both cover my requirements, with MemberMouse having some extra features – particularly split-testing, gifting and (truly useful) automatically moving members to mailing lists based on membership product. But Memberpress does almost everything for just $99, including the affiliate system.  Decisions, decisions!
It comes down to what the site’s potential needs will be in 2-3 years and whether MemberMouse’s extra features are worth the extra cost. The last thing I want to be is stuck 2 years down the road with a system that can’t grow with the needs of the community.  That alone makes the choice clear – but I slept on it anyway 🙂

And the winner is … MemberMouse!

I believe in the potential of my project and need a premium membership plugin for WordPress that offers features and flexibility designed for growth.  For my project, that’s MemberMouse.
I have to reiterate – MemberMouse was the right choice for my specific project and it’s specific needs. Your needs can and likely will be different.  Any of the other 6 options I looked at deeply – or one of the many other options out there – might suit your needs perfectly.
So be sure to take my review for what it is – a look into my thought process for a specific project.

And a little bonus – my comparison table

When I get overwhelmed by information, I write things down and organize to make comparison easier.  You can see how my chicken scratch looked above but I decided to put it into a spreadsheet so I could organize and edit better.  Check it out below.

Are you looking for a premium membership plugin for WordPress? What are your needs? Let me know in the comments!


PS All outgoing links above are affiliate links.

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