As a software development company in the membership site and LMS (learning management system) industry, we have spent hundreds, dare I say, thousands of hours researching the marketplace, our competitors, and industry trends.
In that research, one of the most common questions (and debates) we come across is, “Should I build my membership site or online course using a platform or on WordPress using plugins?” in one variation or another.
You’ll see strong supporters and arguments on both sides of the fence, and the honest answer is, it depends.
There’s no one-size-fits-all tool when it comes to membership site software and learning management systems. If there were, you wouldn’t have hundreds of options to choose from.
In fact, the LMS market is expected to grow to $28.1 billion by 2025. (Meticulous Research)
Let’s take a look at the differences in platforms and plugins to help you find the right fit for your business.
Table of Contents
Development Philosophies and Infrastructure
Platform-as-a-Service Hosted Solutions
When you build your online course or membership site on a platform, you can upload your course materials, manage members, and have things up and running fairly quickly without having to build the framework yourself.
It’s like renting a move-in-ready place. You’re renting your online course space and the platform creator dictates what you can and cannot change about it, or require you to pay more for advanced customization and functionality.
Generally speaking, you don’t have as much design flexibility in terms of what you can customize or change because you’re not the true owner of the platform. Just like when you’re renting, the owners might not let you add a new room or remove any walls.
There’s a good chance you’ll hit roadblocks when it comes to how you present and organize your materials, and deliver your course.
A lot of platforms have built-in notifications so you can send out an email to all participants when new material is added, and a welcome email when they purchase.However, you don’t have as much flexibility as you may have with a WordPress plugin that is integrated with your email marketing system or CRM. This type of setup would allow you to prompt users who aren’t logging in, and create more personalized check-ins and follow-ups based on that deep integration.
A lot of membership site owners and online course creators start out with a hosted platform and really start to gain traction with their offers. Unfortunately, their platform can’t always support their growth and as their courses and memberships scale, they start to feel restricted by the limitations their platform has.
To move to something more flexible, such as a custom build on WordPress using a membership plugin, LMS plugin, or combination of the two can be a time-consuming and expensive process.
Software-as-a-Service Self-Hosted WordPress Plugins
The software-as-a-service (SaaS) model will give you the most flexibility and control over your membership site or online course portal.
When you choose a WordPress plugin as the control center for your membership site and online courses, hosted using a website host of your choice, you have complete ownership, akin to building and owning your own home.
You have the freedom to decide exactly what you want it to look like, where everything goes, and how big or small you want it to be.
And, of course, the power to change any of that in the future
Over 36% of the web is powered by the WordPress CMS. It’s open-source meaning anyone can use, study, change and redistribute its source code, something you won’t have access to on a platform-as-a-service tool.
WordPress also has a large, dedicated community of designers and developers to support it and its plugins so you really get the most flexibility and functionality when you choose this foundation to build your own infrastructure.
Investment & Ongoing Expenses
Platforms charge a recurring monthly fee to use their services. You’re usually able to start off on the more affordable monthly plans, but as you add more offers and members you’re likely going to be forced to upgrade. And, if you want to remove the platform’s branding from your digital space you have to opt for a more expensive plan.
Some platforms even withhold an additional transaction fee for every payment processed on top of the processing fees already withheld by your payment processor.
You should also budget for your email marketing platform and any tools required to integrate your membership site with your email marketing system, such as Zapier or WPFusion. Not all platforms require a third-party tool for integration, but most do.
WordPress plugins have a variety of pricing structures. Some use a SaaS model and charge a recurring fee on a monthly or annual basis, whereas others are a one-time purchase and will sell access to ongoing support or they may simply offer lifetime access for no additional investment after the one-time fee.
You’ll also need to pay for your CRM or marketing automation system, and some plugins require you to use a third-party tool to connect your membership site to that system, but not all do. For example, AccessAlly integrates directly with your email marketing system so no additional tools or fees will be required for your integration.
Membership and LMS platforms aren’t easily extensible. You can’t extend the existing functionality with add-ons or integrations outside what the platform has included. What is available is rather limited. If the platform doesn’t have the features you need, you will need to either compromise your wishlist or find an alternative.
WordPress LMS and membership site plugins tend to be more extensible. Some aim to be an all-in-one membership site and online course solution like AccessAlly so you can keep your tech stack to a minimum. Others have been developed to offer its core functionality and require add-ons and additional plugin integrations to extend on that core functionality, like LearnDash or LifterLMS.
WordPress gives you more flexibility from the start and long-term, making it a more scalable solution for your membership site and online course needs.
WordPress plugins give you more flexibility in terms of the way you can set up your offers to grant or restrict access, collect payments, and distribute your content.
If you have a unique content distribution model for your members or online course participants, we recommend using a WordPress plugin.
Platforms, on the other hand, make it easy to get your courses or membership online quickly and set up with your most popular payment plans. However, if you have a membership built on a platform and decide to add a course as an additional paid offer for new or existing customers, but want to use it as a bonus for your members as a limited-time offer, this isn’t easy to do on most platforms.
How to Choose Your Plugin or Platform
The benefit of a Platform-as-a-Service LMS is that you can test your idea for your courses, and often hit the ground running faster. However, faster isn’t always better, but it is a great way to establish proof of concept or test an offer quickly.
If you’ve done your research on your ideal clients and scoured the web reading the best LMS comparisons and membership site plugin reviews, you’re prepared to invest in your membership site setup or online course tools. We highly recommend WordPress plugins if you value custom design, and want to have the most flexibility now and in the future in terms of added functionality. In our experience, these are better long-term solutions. We provide demos to potential customers wanting to migrate away from platforms for this exact reason day in and day out.
Mapping out your vision for your courses and membership site will help you find a platform or plugin that will best support your goals and help eliminate and prevent migration issues and lost revenue down the line.
Things to Consider
When doing your research be sure to ask yourself these questions:
- What features and functionality do you need right now, and plan to add as a phase 2 or in the next iteration?
- What additional tools will you need to integrate with your platform or plugin to streamline your business operations, and what is the cost of each?
- Do you want a custom design or templated membership or online course?
- Who will maintain your membership site or online course after the initial setup?
If you’re ready to take your membership site and online course to the next level, take a few minutes to learn more about AccessAlly. The membership site plugin and learning management system that will best support your business could be right at your fingertips.