This post is aimed at new membership organisations just getting started or small membership organisations that need to refresh their website. It will descibe the key considerations when building a membership website and provide practical tools to help you to achieve this quickly and efficiently.
There are a number of requirements that are typical for membership organisations. If you are just starting it's worth anticipating how you will deal with these needs as you grow.
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
All-in-one or multiple systems?
Broadly there are two routes you can take when building a membership website. The first is to choose one of the many pieces of software aimed specifically at memberhsip organisations. These tools often offer many, if not all, of the key elements you'll need. The alternative approach is to use a different tool for each feature. An all-in-one solution will keep everything simpler but may be more limited in terms of flexibility. Choosing different tools means you often get a lot more flexibility. It often depends on how much time you want to use setting everything up.
We will explore each approach in order and provide specific step by step guidance.
Step-by-step website building guide
All-in-one membership systems
It is probably best to start by exploring software that is specifically built for membership organisations. This type of software will have been refined by the needs of many similar organisations and this approach can save you reinventing the wheel. If you try a few options and find these too restrictive then it may be worth exploring the more customisable approach of using a range of different pieces of software and trying to get them to speak 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.
In the following video we explain how you would use the White Fuse membership management system to build a membership website quickly and easily.
An alternative approach to the all-in-one system is to combine a range of separate pieces of software together. This can provide additional flexibility and is often a good route if you have very custom requirements and need the flexibility to make changes to the system at any time. The key elements you'll need are:
- Website builder
- Contact database
- Event management platform
- Email marketing platform
- Payment processing
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.
Website: Wix or Wordpress
For a very simple front end website, Wix is a very popular choice. It is affordably priced and provides a lot of design flexibility without any of the hassles of hosting an updating open source software.
Another very popular choice is Wordpress, which is an open source content management system. This means you can download it freely but you'll need to pay someone to host it for you. It is very flexible and even has some membership plugins but they will may need advanced skills to configure.
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 data protection guide for small charities.
Here are a few popular plugins to get you started (there are many more):
CRM or contact database
The simplest approach is just an online spreadsheet held in a system like Google Docs. However, this approach is difficult to link with other systems and can quickly become inadequate as a membership website develops and more members join.
The next step is to use one of the many general pieces of CRM software available. Hubspot and Zoho both have powerful free CRMs with limited functionality that may be enough to help you get started.
The most prominent example of stand-alone event management software used by membership organisations is EventBrite but there are various other event mangement software options available such as TicketTailor and EventHQ.
When you are just getting started, one of the best and simplest approaches is to set up payment pages with GoCardless. GoCardless uses Direct Debit which is a great payment method for recurring payments and it allows you to define a range of plans and point people to an online form where they can join that plan and create a Direct Debit mandate that will be used to automate renewal payments.
Connecting everything together
The biggest frustration voiced by membership organisations using a fragmented approach to building a membership website is managing membership data. Many modern SaaS systems offer integrations but data rarely flows seamlessly and is often duplicated. Where integrations fall short, software like Zapier and PieSync, which exist specifically for passing data between multiple pieces of software, can sometimes help to join things up.