Due to some karmic event, I discovered the San Jose WordPress Meetup (SJWP) in December 2019. I was seriously considering firing the agency I had been relying upon for the development of my website, TechForAging.com.
I was intrigued by the subject, “Building a Site Together”, of the upcoming January 7, 2020 meeting. I attended and it turned out the project was to be a “Membership” website.
I volunteered to be involved in researching membership plugins because I knew little about the subject and it was the primary issue with my website. I presented my findings at the February and March meetings, and Dave asked if I would “write it up”. So, I hope you find this of some benefit.
There is more detailed “history” (TL;DR) in the final section, Background, below.
Most “membership” plugins are focused on revenue-generating websites requiring several features not required by the group project, or by my website. But there are some that are candidates for use.
The mockup site, pictured above, used the Ultimate Member plugin. Another, not included in the initial research, S2Member, will be thoroughly evaluated after the publication of this article.
1: Plugins: Paid, Freemium, or Multiple
The research began by reading quite a few articles reviewing membership plugins. It became clear that most were paid only (premium/pro), with no free version. The dominant pay model is based on annual subscriptions.
Our SJWP leader, Dave, was able to provide me with one paid-only product, Wishlist. A brief evaluation revealed that it is overkill for our needs.
Another issue with the paid-only offerings is that review article-based information may not be the most reliable. The “freemium” model provides the benefit of the WordPress plugin directory with reviews, how long since the last update, tested with the installed core release level, and download statistics.
Both the paid and freemium plugins include all functionality (potential of bloat) or offer integrated add-ons, either free or paid. A third approach was also investigated.
The project, and my website, are seeking functionality that is offered in separate plugins. The functional areas primarily include registration, profiles, login, roles, and conditional menus and content.
The separate plugin route can result in conflict problems. Also, choosing the right search terms can be difficult. I searched the plugin directory for:
- Content restriction
- user management
- Login registration
- Login forms
2: Why Not Plain WordPress?
After having gone through the review articles, I found a tutorial, “Complete Tutorial: How to Build a Membership Site on WordPress” which provided me with foundational understanding. It is about the third approach mentioned above.
An overview describes the attributes of a competent WordPress membership site, how it was not designed for that purpose, and what is lacking or less than desirable.
The first thing is the login, registration, and profile functions of standard WordPress. The first time my developer asked me to test the registration and login to be used by members I was taken aback that I wound up in a restricted wp-admin dashboard. In hindsight, that should have set off alarm bells.
What is required, as the author puts it, is something meant for “normal people” and not developers.
The second area concerns WP’s user roles with only one type really available for members which is more than likely not adequate.
Thirdly, there is a very limited capability to direct content to different levels of membership. And, the author’s last component that does not meet the needs for memberships is menu management, where different levels could see different menus to access different content.
So the tutorial chooses three plugins to overcome these deficiencies. The author did not note that many membership sites require additional integrations that will need even more plugins.
The three plugins chosen were:
- User Role Editor by Members (see below for a “funny” story)
- User Registration & User Profile – Profile Builder
- Nav Menu Roles
A typical issue when following the tutorial is that it was based upon older versions of the plugins. I did this after the evaluation below (#4) and did not go beyond the tutorial.
3: Membership, Subscription, Community
After the initial look, I began to go deeper starting with what appears to be the most popular freemium plugin, Ultimate Member.
I’m not sure if this is an issue with other plugin categories but it seems one can easily get confused by similar names of these plugins. I searched in YouTube for Ultimate Member and found what appeared to be a good tutorial. After 20 minutes, it turned out to be for Ultimate Membership Pro, a paid-only product.
But I did find another pretty good article, “Membership Plugin Review: Ultimate Member“. This article also provided additional insights regarding this general topic of “membership”:
Don’t confuse a membership with a subscription. One is a sign of belonging, the other is a financial instrument.
Don’t confuse building a membership site & building a community. One is focused on technology, the other is about people.
The SJWP project is about a community site for volunteers. My site is intended to initially be about community, with a future possibility of adding subscriptions.
4: Evaluating Ultimate Member
The author of the review article points out that Ultimate Member is designed for building community websites. As I see this as in line with the objective of the project and what I hope to accomplish, it was the first to be evaluated.
The installation process will create the set of pages required, as do others (but not all). It installs its own section, conveniently named Ultimate Member, in the admin menu. Some others install under Tools or Settings or Users or more than one. Its menu has:
- User Roles
- Member Directories
As I was writing this there was one extra – Upgrade – and there was a large box about it at the top of all admin pages. The reason is that I updated the plugin to version 2.1.5 from 2.0.? and ” It is necessary to update the structure of the database and options”.
There are 4 free extensions and a bunch of premium extensions. Pricing is $249 per year for all (unlimited), $299 per year including with the company’s own theme, or $35 to $50 (each) per year for individual extensions and for a single site (multiple site pricing too).
For example, MailChimp integration is $45 for 1 site, $60 for up to 5, and $110 for up to 20. All are per year.
The content restriction / conditional features seem good for the project and my use. There is a shortcode for general content ( [um_show_content roles=’um_role1′] …. [/um_show_content] ).
There are extra settings for each menu item – who can see this menu link: Everyone, Logged In, Logged Out. For Logged In, checkboxes appear to specify each Role.
When customizing the registration and profile forms and their fields, conditional logic can be applied for individual fields.
You, the reader, can have a look at this mockup, assuming the site still exists when you are reading this. There are two user roles, a volunteer and a supervisor. Login with volunteer1 to see the site for that role (2, 3 or 4 also work). Login with coeadmin for the supervisor. The password is the same as the login.
There are only slight differences to be seen on the Welcome page and an extra menu dropdown for the supervisor role. There are also some differences in the profile form.
The negatives (poor English-related) are that the documentation is not very good and, with the free version at least, support is neither.
So, since this is designed for a community, is one of the most popular freemium plugin for this application, and the free version may include almost all that is needed, I did not do a deeper evaluation of others.
5: Other Plugins
I stopped my evaluation of Paid Memberships Pro when I was required to register just to read the documentation. It is focussed on subscription (paid) memberships rather than community memberships. But it claims to be used by associations and clubs too. Here is a review.
I intended to look at WP-Members because it was one of the top freemium plugins. This review indicates that it might be worth a look if one of the others is not chosen.
One last plugin I intend to research is S2Member. It generally gets knocked for the difficulty of learning or setting up. But it is praised for being very comprehensive. The free version has all the addons I need (free) and its Pro versions are reasonably priced with a one-time, rather than annual, cost. Plus, I have a Udemy course I’m going to start on to really learn it.
Should one consider the theme when considering building a membership site? Bearing in mind my inexperience with this subject, I think that if you are looking to develop a revenue-producing membership site, you might want to research this further.
The reason for this opinion is that several of the vendors of these plugins also offer a theme plus some tutorials specified a specific theme. But for a community site, I believe theme choice may not have the same importance.
Maybe by the time you read this, I will have gotten the “membership” aspects of TechForAging.com working and you will want to become a member 🙂
A “funny” story
My developers installed a plugin named Members. It shows up in my website’s plugin directory with that name, Version 2.2.0, and By Justin Tadlock. When I tried to find it to install for the tutorial I had a hard time when searching for members in the Add New search box.
It turned out that the link for User Role Editor by Members is https://wordpress.org/plugins/members/, and it installs with that name too. If you look at the link for “By MemberPress” it is https://memberpress.com/.
MemberPress is actually the top paid-only membership plugin and not related to this one at all (I believe)! The “By Justin Tadlock” link is https://themehybrid.com which is now the actual developer of the “Members” plugin!
Shortly after attending the January meeting, I decided this activity would help me to take over the development of my website, so I fired my hired agency.
One of the reasons I joined SJWP was the level of knowledge and experience of many of the other attendees. Another reason, having to do with the “Building a Site Together” project, was more important to me.
In addition to discussions and comments that I found to be of interest, the project was discussed and broken down into teams and volunteers were assigned. I volunteered, along with Ted Altenberg, to research membership plugins, because it is the area of my website that the agency failed to deliver.
The subject of membership is not familiar to me, other than as it applies to my website. Ted compiled a list of links to review articles. I read through them and started to dig further into some of the plugins.
Ted also created a Google Drive shared folder for members of the Meetup group and produced an excellent set of detailed notes on the Jan 7 meeting, which included extensive notes (by Manny Pitta) on the existing website (see mockup above) to be used as a model for the project.
I offered to present what I had learned, so far, for the next meeting, February 4. I discussed the requirements I had gleaned from Manny’s document. My notes on this are in the shared folder.
I also created a simple worksheet, also in the folder, with plugin candidates for potential review along with some attributes and features. I created a presentation for the March meeting and it led to the creation of this article.