There are impressive membership sites out there… but the question is: what's the best WordPress membership site theme to achieve your own membership goals?
The impressive sites you've seen are exquisitely designed, but they're also effective at bringing in solid recurring revenue, month after month.
That's because the appearance of your membership site goes hand-in-hand with its functionality and effectiveness.
Naturally, when you see a membership site and think I want that, your first question is: I wonder what plugin they use?
…but the membership site plugin controls the page protection, user automations, etc. It doesn't actually control the whole website styling.
The WordPress theme does.
Table of Contents
- The Success Of Your Membership Site Depends On The Theme
- Theme Vs Builder Plugin
- Criteria #1: Design Flexibility So That It Looks The Way You Imagined It Would
- Criteria #2: A Single or Multi-Site License
- Criteria #3: A Tech Support Team That's Helpful and Knowledgeable
- Criteria #4: Developer Updates
- Criteria #5: User-Friendly Setup That Saves You Time (And Emotional Energy)
- The Best WordPress membership site theme is the one that fits your needs
The Success Of Your Membership Site Depends On The Theme
Pretty much any WordPress theme can look (and act) amazing with a skilled developer behind it. That's a fact.
However, if you're not able (or willing) to custom-code it all, you're going to find yourself searching for “the best” WordPress theme for membership sites that's got all the required features right out of the box.
We'll cover the “Big 5” features to look for when choosing the best WordPress membership site theme in this article, in addition to looking at whether you need a theme or a page builder to get the job done.
So let's get started.
Theme Vs Builder Plugin
There are two big players on the field here: WordPress themes and WordPress page builder plugins. Both can give you a ton of customization – albeit in different ways.
In general, the WordPress theme takes care of your header, footer, widget areas, sidebars, menus, and site-wide fonts and colors. Some themes will make it super easy for you to tweak these elements. Others… not so much.
For example, if you wanted to have a sidebar on the blog pages but not on any other page of your website, the theme would have to permit you to apply a sidebar on a page-by-page basis.
The content areas of individual pages and posts are left to:
The Page Builder Plugin
WordPress comes with a built-in text editor, of course, where you can create your page content.
An alternative option is to use a Page Builder Plugin to gain additional layout, formatting, and easy coding options. Some of the most well-known page builder plugins are the Beaver Builder Plugin, The Divi Builder, Elementor, and X Theme's Cornerstone.
A page builder plugin sits on top of a WordPress theme, so you can use whatever theme you want… but the page builder will be limited by your theme's preset layouts.
Back to that sidebar example: if your theme uses a layout with a site-wide sidebar, the page builder plugin won't be able to make that sidebar invisible.
“Mega” Theme Duos
Many of the so-called WordPress mega themes are actually a versatile theme/page builder plugin duo.
When you purchase Divi, for example, you automatically get the Divi Builder plugin, too.
Keep in mind: Hiring a talented membership site developer might allow you to bypass some (or all) of a theme or plugin's limitations… but there's no guarantee.
Criteria #1: Design Flexibility So That It Looks The Way You Imagined It Would
The amount of customization available to you inside your theme options will vary greatly. Some are very minimal, only allowing you to change the color of the header text and the favicon, for example. Others provide extreme customization, like this example from Divi:
Generally speaking, Theme Options will give you design customization that's applied to the entire site.
Some items that might be included in your theme options are:
- Menu placement
- Font – colors, styles, and sizes
- Header image, site name, and logo
- Widget areas (including the sidebar)
- Footer content
- Your site favicon
- Social links
Page Builder / Layout Options
Now we get to the heart of user-friendly customization: the page builders.
Like I mentioned, some themes are almost indistinguishable from their page builders, since they're purchased under the same license, like Divi and X Theme, for example.
These builders give you the freedom to add various bits of content that would otherwise require a trip to the CSS department.
This example using Beaver Builder gives an idea of the basic styling components: a two-column row that can be filled with additional content. (You can play with a live demo of the Beaver Builder here.)
Within each content area (columns & rows), you can add more specific, stylized content provided by your page builder.
Here's an example of some “modules” that you can add to your pages using the Divi theme/builder: (Play with the live online demo of the Divi Builder here.)
Oh, and a really cool trend in page builders is that many can be used from the front-end of the website. You can literally drag and drop your page elements and watch the effect in real-time. (Both the Beaver Builder and Divi demos linked above are front-end page builders.)
Widget & Menu Areas
Within a membership site, you might need three or more menus – each of which should be able to be applied on a page-by-page basis.
In the example below, we've got three menus:
- #1 is visible site-wide and contains the login/logout links.
- #2 is visible site-wide and contains the main navigation links.
- #3 is a course menu, and is only applicable inside the 30 Day List Building Challenge course pages.
While WordPress settings will allow you to create an unlimited number of menus, none are visible until you designate a place for them with a theme or page builder plugin.
Most WordPress themes only allow you 1-2 menus – a main navigation and a top menu. Both of these are visible site-wide.
Some page builders will make up for the menu restrictions of a theme and allow you to create and place multiple unique menus on any page.
Similar to menus, widget areas are also prime real estate within your membership site. Typically, these areas are visible site-wide (in a sidebar or footer), and cannot be customized on a page-by-page basis.
Some themes include a place to add header/footer code right in your theme options. this is super handy if you have script that needs to run on every page (like the Google analytics tracking code, for example). Without this, you'll have to open up your website files and add in the code manually.
If you're a developer, this might not matter… but if you're not ready to start messing with the site files themselves, then keep an eye out for this feature.
Sometimes, there's no way around it when you have a super-specific vision for your site: you've gotta get into that CSS code and add a few lines.
Some themes make it very easy to add your new CSS code, like this example in the Divi Theme options:
Otherwise, like the Header/Footer script, you'll have to dive into the CSS file of the theme itself, which can get a little hairy.
Criteria #2: A Single or Multi-Site License
The more premium themes often come with licensing specifications that limit how many websites on which you can install the theme you purchased.
So if you're already using a mega theme on your main site and want to keep using it on your separate membership site, you might have to purchase a second license.
The practice of charging a fee for each site makes sense from the business perspective of the theme developer. It's also a good thing for those of us who use those themes.
Because if the theme is bringing in enough recurring revenue, the developer (or company) behind the theme is much more likely to offer continued updates and improvements on that theme.
Moral of the story: when you purchase a theme, know how many sites you WANT to use it on, and how many you're ALLOWED to use it on. Yes, the developers can keep tabs on how many sites you're using it on, so be prepared to buy multiple licenses if necessary.
Criteria #3: A Tech Support Team That's Helpful and Knowledgeable
As you're designing and setting up your website, it's very likely that you'll run into questions.
“Can my theme do THIS? Can I make it look like THIS?”
Because of this, it's such a good idea to have recourse to one of three main support systems:
The theme's developers
Many WordPress themes (and plugins) include tech support when you purchase a license. This tech support usually has a time cap on it – often 6 months to a year after you buy the license.
Your personal web designer/developer
Professional web designers and developers are also capable of answering your theme questions – or tweaking the CSS code where needed.
… but they're not omniscient.
A few years back, I worked with a client whose website was built by a programmer who had no familiarity with WordPress themes. The site was filled with odd code “tweaks” that badly patched everything together… but were a total headache to work around. In the end, the site had to be entirely re-done.
So case in point: whomever you choose to help you, double check that they're familiar with the theme (or plugin) that you've decided to use. Not all developer code equally: some specialize in specific systems. Always make sure you're finding a good fit with a seasoned WordPress developer.
If you're going to DIY your membership site, there's a big benefit to using popular themes: you're likely to have a variety of recently created resources at your fingertips from other theme users.
All it takes is a quick Google search to find great shortcuts and clean CSS code to tweak your website and truly make it your own.
Criteria #4: Developer Updates
The tech world changes. Fast.
A theme developer who cares about the success of his (or her) theme is going to put considerable effort into making sure it stays at the top of the competition.
This might mean making some tweaks to code for it to perform better – or adding some extra features requested by users.
So when you see a plugin that charges a fee (or subscription) in order to access updates, know that it's just good business practice: if the theme isn't bringing in significant income, why would it be worth improving?
Because of this, the premium plugins that charge per license are likely to have a good team behind them… and you can thank that license fee for helping them to stay in business.
Criteria #5: User-Friendly Setup That Saves You Time (And Emotional Energy)
Sure, you could build the exact theme you wanted from scratch if you've got the know-how (and time)… but it's so much easier to use a few user-friendly features that cut your work in half, like:
Some themes come with pre-designed page layouts that you can take and customize to fit your needs.
The benefit here is that you don't have to start from scratch and can rely on someone else's design genius to kickstart your page.
(In terms of membership site plugins, AccessAlly comes with Divi templates that are specifically designed for membership site formatting.)
What happens when you've custom-designed a course page for your membership site that took a ton of time to create… but you want five more copies of that page for other courses?
That's the issue that global items solve. Global items allow you to save your own design work and “share” it on different parts of your website. If you edit it in one place, all the other areas will be updated accordingly.
Sitewide Customization (Theme Options)
We talked about theme options earlier, but they come into play again here.
Plainly put: the more detailed the theme options, the more time you'll save later on when you get to individual pages.
The Best WordPress membership site theme is the one that fits your needs
If, after glancing through the Big 5 things to look for when choosing a WordPress membership site theme, you think “Eh, I only need XYZ”, then you've got a good starting point.
From there, you can make sure that your theme (or theme-page builder plugin duo) will fit the bill.
And don't be afraid to think big. As your membership site grows, you'll be glad to have a robust, flexible theme that can grow with you.
P.S. If you're curious about what we use for our website, it's a combination of Beaver Builder and some legacy Headway themes.