15 Mistakes to Avoid When Building Your Membership Site on WordPress

how to build a membership site on wordpress

In pursuit of a source of recurring revenue for your online business, the question isn't why, but how to build a membership site on WordPress.

As a platform, WordPress is both flexible and user-friendly. If you can imagine it, it can probably be built on WordPress.

But that flexibility comes with its own issues: you have to decide exactly which tools and methods you want used on your membership site.

If you're not super familiar with the process, you may end up with an broken membership site, a big headache, and no recurring revenue.

Our team at AccessAlly not only works behind the scenes creating membership site software, but we also run a popular members area for our own clients.

After chatting with our plugin developers and marketing experts, I found that there are major pitfalls that many entrepreneurs fall into when building their own sites.

So I pulled the top 15 most common mistakes that people make when they're building a membership site on WordPress for their online business.

How To Build A Membership Site On WordPress While Avoiding These 15 Common Mistakes

1. Choosing the wrong hosting company

As a self-hosted platform, figuring out how to build a membership site on WordPress means that you first have to choose your hosting company.

But hosting a membership site is a bit different than hosting a static site, or even a blog. In fact, in our early years of running a membership site, we really struggled with finding a good fit.

So take your time. Do your due research and pick the best WordPress hosting company that fits your unique needs.

Check the companies against the 7 criteria – or simply start with the “top 5” comparison in this article.

2. Selecting an inflexible theme

WordPress themes are a dime a dozen. Some are free, others are premium. Some are pretty to look at, others just aren't.

Aside from the general appearance, choose a theme that offers flexibility in page layout and menu placement.

For example, in the Heartquarters membership site, we use two separate menu areas:

  1. The header menu (site-wide)
  2. The sidebar menu (page-specific)

how to build a membership site on wordpress

Menu #1 takes your users to different areas within your membership site. The secondary menu allows you to navigate within a course.

Since each course within the membership site should have its own menu, your theme will have to allow multiple menus to be designated on any given page.

3. Not building the membership site on a subdomain

This is a big question that we get a lot: should you build your membership site on WordPress on your “main” site, or on a subdomain?

The answer is simple: build it on a sub-domain.

Here's why:

If your membership site is built on the same domain as your main site, you risk confusion with the permission settings and redirects that come with building a membership site. (As your sites grow, so does the need to be absolutely precise with who gets sent where.)

Plus, keeping them separate means that you can focus on good SEO practices on your main site to draw in some amazing traffic.

Click to get the 6 membership site models and case studies

4. Omitting the SSL Certificate

Chances are high that your actual sales pages and order forms are not built inside your membership site. So you don't need to add an SSL Certificate… right?


Inside a well-built membership site, subscribers can update their personal and billing information – including credit cards. Since this information is passed back and forth from your CRM, you definitely want the added security of an SSL certificate.

how to build a membership site on wordpress

Also, some membership site plugins for WordPress include their own order forms that you can use to upsell and cross sell your products. For these to work, you'll need that SSL.

5. Skipping the Automation

The beauty of recurring revenue is that you earn more money while working less hours.

For your membership site built on WordPress to fit into this model, you've got to automate processes to the nth degree.

Got a new subscriber? Automate the welcome email.

Lost (or forgotten) password? Automate the recovery.

Want to give students rewards for completing their courses? Yes, you can definitely automate that, too.

how to build a membership site on wordpress

6. Compiling the Wrong Suite of Tech Tools

The functionality of your membership site depends a little bit on your strategy and a lot on the tech tools you decide to use.

Do your plugins play well with each other? (WordPress plugins are often at odds with each other, depending on how they've been coded.)

Can your membership site plugin communicate with your CRM to automate everything properly?

If you're not super familiar with the plugin options out there, enlist the help of a skilled developer or programmer to help you pick the right tools for the job.

7. Missing the Pricing Mark

Your membership site is built to make money… or should be.

But it's challenging to price your digital products. On the one hand, you know that you can re-sell the same item repeatedly to up the income. But on the other hand, the more sales you need, the more precise your marketing has to be.

In the end, it can be as tough to sell a membership site subscription for a dollar as it is to sell it for a premium $1K.

This is more about knowing your clients and how to market with them than setting an actual dollar amount.

But choosing the wrong pricing model for your clientele (subscription vs. a one-time sign up cost, for example) can absolutely keep your membership site from being successful.

8. An Online Course Without Design

There's a science to building an online course.

If you don't care whether or not your students experience success, then go ahead an build it any old way.

If, on the other hand, you care about nurturing your students and collecting “success” stories, then your next task is a lot different.

Kelly Edmonds, an instructional designer, recommends asking yourself this question: “What is it I want them to do? What do I want them to experience?”

The answer to that question will dictate how your course is ultimately designed.

ideas for online courses

9. No Upsell (Or Cross-sell) Strategy

Acquiring a new customer for your online membership site can be 5 – 25 times more expensive (source) than simply keeping the subscribers you already have.

In other words: weave a solid up-sell strategy into the fibre of your membership site.

The good news about this is that it can all be automated so that you don't have to lift a finger. (Learn how here.)

10. Choosing “Cheap” Instead of an “Investment” Mindset

The bottom line is this: your membership site is going to cost you. A lot.

Sure, you could go cheap on tech tools to throw something together. (Free membership site plugins galore!)

But you also have to consider the time it takes to create the course materials, build and design the site, and set up the automations.

Thinking of your membership site as an investment will help you make the right decisions about choosing systems that are built to last over ones that are meant to be a quick-stick solution.

11. Chucking The Test User

Whether you're learning how to build a membership site on WordPress yourself or are relying on someone else's expertise doesn't really matter.

how to build a membership site on wordpress

In either case, create a “testing user” for the site so that you can experience everything a new subscriber would experience. This will give you valuable perspective to close loopholes and find the glitches before the whole project is live.

12. Skipping Gamification

Sure, you can just throw some content together and call it a day. But when you go the extra mile to keep your online students engaged and motivation, your success rates will soar.

how to build a membership site on wordpress

Need ideas? Start here.

13. DIY-ing without knowledge

Ok this a total buzz kill… but it's also a huge pet peeve of mine.

I get it: being an entrepreneur often means that you have to DIY your way to personal and professional success.

But sometimes DIY-ing is just an excuse to cut corners.

how to build a membership site on wordpress

If you're not willing (or able) to put the time into learning your tech systems and discovering the best strategies for making it succeed, you might as well shelf the idea for later.

In short: take the time to educate yourself. WordPress is an ecosystem with many moving parts, and can be difficult for a newb to navigate.

(Note: enlisting the help of a professional when setting up your membership site IS an investment. But it can also mean the difference between a working membership site and one that falters and fails entirely.)

14. Not budgeting enough time

This is a biggie!

I've watched (and cringed) as ambitious entrepreneurs become completely frustrated and panicked because of unrealistic time constraints.

Membership sites can take months to build out properly, from planning to execution to testing and revising.

Give yourself plenty of wiggle room – there's always something that comes up during the build!

15. Forgetting to make it personal

No one wants to be just another number.

Don't make your membership site students feel like they are.

how to build a membership site on wordpress

Finding little ways to make your site more personal can mean the difference between a membership cancellation and a renewal.

In other words… treat it like a real part of your business

And now we come right down to it: learning how to build a membership site on WordPress is less about the tech tools (although that's certainly a huge part, too), and more about treating it like a viable part of your business.

If you invest in the right tools, training, and expertise to get it off the ground, the chances are much higher that it will produce a viable recurring revenue stream for you to enjoy for years to come.


Maria Myre Headshot 1Maria Myre is a copywriter and content strategist. She helps businesses develop an unforgettable brand voice, so they can connect with their audience on a deeper level. Maria also loves Italian espresso, fall weather, and horseback riding.


  1. PJ (web.ninja) on September 11, 2017 at 7:45 pm

    This is a fantastic list — very well thought out. I think ‘Time’ is the thing people leave out the most of. Everyone talks about how awesome WordPress is, but they don’t mention there is an ongoing learning curve. There is always something new to learn or update or improve. Anyone choosing WordPress is making a great choice, just remember to dedicate time to making it happen.

    Thanks again for a great article :)

    • ambitionally on September 26, 2017 at 9:13 am

      Thanks for mentioning that PJ, that’s a big one for sure!

  2. Fiona on October 18, 2017 at 10:26 am

    What a brilliant list! When you say to build the membership site on a subdomain, do you recommend creating a totally separate WordPress install, or would a multi-site install have any benefits?

    • ambitionally on October 25, 2017 at 10:27 am

      Great question! A multi-site it totally fine, and we’ve run our sites that way for a few years. I prefer to have a different WordPress install these days though, since it gives your sites that “separation”… so if your membership site or main website get a ton of traffic, the other one won’t be affected. :)

  3. Llyane @FrenchOnSkype on October 18, 2017 at 1:14 pm

    oh, this helps so much, Nathalie!
    Merci beaucoup xo

    • ambitionally on October 25, 2017 at 10:22 am

      So glad to hear it – bienvenue!

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