WordPress For Serious Membership Sites

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In this LMScast episode, Jonathan Denwood talks about the benefits of utilizing WordPress for serious membership websites as well as some things to keep in mind.

Jonathan Denwood is the founder and CEO of WP-Tonic, a WordPress-focused company offering services and hosting options for WordPress websites. He provides ideas and points of view on using WordPress to create and grow high-value online training courses. He highlights several topics, such as the advantages and disadvantages of using WordPress for membership websites, what to look for in an MVP, and suggestions for website development and marketing tactics.

Jonathan Denwood from WP-Tonic

Jonathan also highlights the value of using technologies like LifterLMS and FluentCRM/MailPoet for membership site-building and email marketing inside the WordPress environment, as well as the significance of digital sovereignty and appropriate hosting.

Jonathan further discusses Presto Player, a plugin that works with Bunny.net and offers superior statistics and performance for organizing videos in the WordPress media library.

Here’s Where To Go Next…

Get the Course Creator Starter Kit to help you (or your client) create, launch, and scale a high-value online learning website.

Also visit the creators of the LMScast podcast over at LifterLMS, the world’s leading most customizable learning management system software for WordPress. Create courses, coaching programs, online schools, and more with LifterLMS.

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Episode Transcript

Chris Badgett: You’ve come to the right place. If you’re looking to create, launch, and scale a high value online training program, I’m your guide, Chris Badgett. I’m the co founder of LifterLMS, the most powerful learning management system for WordPress. Stay to the end. I’ve got something special for you. Enjoy the show.

Hello, and welcome back to another episode of LMS cast. I’m joined by a special guest and personal friend, Jonathan Denwood. He’s from wp tonic. com. Today, we’re going to be having some real talk, some honest talk about the pros and cons of using WordPress for your membership site or a hosted solution like Kajabi and so on.

Welcome back on the show, Jonathan.

Jonathan Denwood: Oh, thank you so much, Chris. It’s a pleasure coming back on your show.

Chris Badgett: Yeah, it’s good. I’m so excited to have you. And in our pre chat we were talking about some of the topics that are just evergreen in our niche and areas where we’re really focused and where we have a, goldmine of experience and time in the trenches that we want to really have a frank discussion around using WordPress for a membership site.

Or LMS versus a hosted solution. What are the real drawbacks of WordPress? and hat are the real pros? What kind of people or projects are a better fit for one platform or the other? Let’s, dive into let’s start with a negative just because. I’m always so positive and I know you are too, but let’s start in the, on the dark side.

What’s the drawback to using WordPress for a membership site?

Jonathan Denwood: I think there’s just slightly more hoops to jump through. And in the new year, probably WP Tonic is going to have a new solution. We’re going to continue being a hosting solution as well. But we can talk about that at the end. But I think there’s just more loops to jump through.

You’ve got to get a hosting provider, you have to get a domain. But in truth with most hosted SAS solutions like Kajabi. You have to get a domain anyway, but you do have to get hosting and then You have a blanks.

And you have a blank page with WordPress, you then have to go and find out, find these, what I call Lego bricks, which are plugins, and you have an endless Feast of plugins and if you’re somebody new to WordPress or just edited as your own or somebody else WordPress website and you like the experience, but you’ve never built a membership.

You are, you have audience, you are, you have knowledge in your field. But you never mechanically built out a membership, which has a number of balls that you’re juggling. You just got that blank WordPress website and you just got to go and find. These Lego bricks and then you’ve got to assemble them all together and then build a coherent membership website where if you’ve got Kajabi, you don’t have that blank sheet.

You have the key Lego bricks inside.

Chris Badgett: It’s just one account to sign up for instead of hosting and all these different plugins and all this stuff.

Jonathan Denwood: It’s the hosting, which is only one step in truth, is it? But, then you’ve got to find these Lego bricks, haven’t you? These key plugins that will be your, WordPress text stack that will enable you to build.

Chris Badgett: I find myself giving conflicting advice sometimes around creating a minimum viable product or MVP for a membership site. On one hand, there’s an argument that you could just Start with a SaaS solution like Kajabi and get product market fit.

Figure it out, and then later, as you want more power and customizability, you can switch to WordPress, but there’s this other argument that why don’t you just start with WordPress?

It’s cheaper. It’s lower cost. You don’t have to worry about transitioning out of a hosted platform later. How would you engage with the debate of the MVP? Should you do it on WordPress or should you do it on a SaaS solution? When might that work for different people?

Jonathan Denwood: I think there’s two fundamental decisions that you’ve got to make.

Is this going to be a multiple course? Membership business, a real membership business where you’re building a real community and you’re probably going to have multiple tiers of different courses on it, which is going to you’re going to build up on a number of years. This is. probably going to, this is going to be a one to five year exercise.

But the outcome is a sustainable business, which you probably will give you the freedom to give up your day job or give you more freedom in general. So that’s a great outcome, but if that is not your. End result, you are just looking to add a one course functionality to the services that you are offering in general, and you have no plans to build a multi-course structure.

With community, you’ll probably be look, you probably will be better off looking maybe at a SAS, but you just a one off membership plugin. There’s still a choice there, but I think that is another way that you’ve got to look at it. Is it just going to be a one course add on? which you can, in the WordPress space, you can achieve that by just using a membership plugin or you could use something like Teachable or Learnable, which are in the SAS area ideal for that type of setup.

But if you’re looking at the first setup, I think you’re for, what I call digital sovereignty, I, not building your business on entirely somebody’s Property that you should try for any business building investing an enormous amount of time and energy on something that somebody totally owns is not a very good business concept in my view, Chris.

Chris Badgett: Yeah, building your business on rented land on a hosted platform is not necessarily a great idea. Like recently, Udemy increased their or decreased the amount of revenue share they did with their instructors. And those instructors had no say or control or power to go against that. When it comes to getting started with WordPress for a membership site.

What advice would you have for getting started if we are committed to at least dedicating five years of our life to WordPress and how might that be different if we were starting on a hosted solution and plan on being there for five years?

Jonathan Denwood: Yeah, I think I’ve just put off half your audience listening to this podcast because I’ve just mentioned five years, haven’t I?

But the, good thing about this is, and one of the most Exciting elements of this whole field, Chris, is that five year journey, that five year, a lot of that can be this can be your side hassle. This can be your business that you’re building up gradually. And a lot of propaganda on the internet about side hassles are based on total rubbish.

Lies, deceit, nonsense, but what we’re engaged in with your great plugin and this podcast and what I’m trying to do is that we’re legitimately offering a a solution that really offers the ability of somebody to build something as a side hassle that’s real. that isn’t the snake hole. Not saying it’s easy, but in that five year journey, a lot of that can, it can be your side hassle.

So that’s the first thing. And I’ve just forgotten your question because I’ve just rabbited on so much, Chris.

Chris Badgett: No, that’s good. I like the reframe on the, five year thing. Cause it’s, really a question of how serious are you about this project? And my original question was, how do you get into WordPress if you’re new and you, want to own the platform that you’re building and have the digital sovereignty?

What are the key things to avoid and what are the pro tips when getting into WordPress for a serious five year plan membership business that may be a side hustle in the beginning or may always be a side hustle?

Jonathan Denwood: Don’t choose really cheap hosting providers. Number one. It doesn’t have to be ridiculously expensive either at W P.

hyphen tonic, we start a yearly plan at 35 a month and that will cover your first year at least. easily cover your first year and probably cover a good part of your second year if you’re starting from the bottom up easily. So good hosting. And then your key Lego brick is gonna be your learning management system.

And if you’re starting from the ground up, I think LifterLMS is the obvious solution because it offers so much value for the person beginning at the bottom. That is the clear leader. I’m not saying that because you’re a personal friend. I believe that it’s a no brainer. You would start with LifterLMS because a lot of the functionality is free, but you’ve also Very well and logically sorted out add on features that you get in add on functionality plugins, which gives the ability for a very low cost to start off at the bottom and then you have package.

Packages as well that are logical. LifterLMS can take you from beginning middle to a very large membership site and deal with the spectrum. And it is going to be the key Lego block of all the other plugins that you add on. Start with LifterLMS.

Chris Badgett: Awesome. And what are some of the things people may not be thinking about in terms of removing friction with starting with WordPress?

One thing is like WP tonic hosting already has the tech stack sorted for approximately, including the hosting for approximately 300 a year. You can’t start. a business, like if you were going to rent an office, that’s just the, base

Jonathan Denwood: layer, actually a little bit high. It’s 420,

Chris Badgett: 420. Yeah. But still like for less than 500 a year, you can start.

So that’s one thing is to get high quality hosting. Another is you don’t have to do it by yourself. Like you can still find technical talent to help do things on your side or help you with your marketing. What are ways, what are some creative ways to remove the complexity in addition to getting hosting that’s designed for LMS and membership sites?

What else can people do to remove pain around the complexity of WordPress?

Jonathan Denwood: I think the other key build LifterLMS, the other key decision is what, how are you going to build your website? How are you going to build your landing pages? That is the next key decision and basically for various reasons that has unfortunately become a little bit more complicated, but in some ways we are all seeing the possibility that becomes a much more simpler choice in the near future.

At WP we give you two options that I think are the two clearest in our mind, but it’s debatable. This is not black and white. And those two choices are Elementor or Kadence WP. Kadence is a framework that builds on The native WordPress website and page building functionality of Gutenberg, but does it in a very logical and powerful way.

And at WP-Tonic, we’ve just finished building a whole series of starter themes on Cadence. That’s part of our hosting package, a library of 15. Starter templates, with different looks but purposely designed. For a membership learning community, and we offer that as part of our hosting package. I think, unless you specifically and I’ve got nothing wrong with Elementor, because I think Elemenr is a professional quasar freelance professional building website tool.

It’s still superb. But I think if you’re somebody that’s an entrepreneur, I think Cadence WP on Gutenberg really offers a lot of power without with having a team that can moderate some of the new functionality that’s constantly being added to Gutenberg, that can act as a filter. So you don’t have to deal with the consequences of added new functionality being added.

So they act as a editor filter and they’ve added a lot of additional functionality. And I’ve been using Cadence. I still use Elementor and I use a couple of other page builders. But I’ve also built, lately I’ve built a couple websites on Cadence and I’ve just been really impressed with it, Chris.

Chris Badgett: Yeah, Kadence has done a great job and it really helps with that blank page problem of WordPress. Like you get sold on the the power and the customizability. But if you start from complete scratch, you have a white screen and no pages on your website. And if you don’t, if you’re lacking design talent, you may not.

Be able to build something that really looks good and appeals shifting gears to marketing and content. One, one of the benefits of WordPress is the you’re, basically building content on your website, contributing to your domain authority, your SEO, what advice do you have and where can people remove friction to get.

The marketing part of the membership machine rolling and how might, how is that better in WordPress versus a hosted platform? Yeah.

Jonathan Denwood: I think there’s two parts of that. I think a lot of people before you do invest time and energy on building a membership website, I think there’s a host. We’re in the end of 2023.

I think one of the great things there’s never been a greater time to start a membership website. And the reason why I say that is that there’s never been a more easier or. Time to build a community on Facebook, on various platforms, on YouTube, on TikTok, you name it there’s a dozen different platforms and you’ve got a great example that you’ve discussed recently on my, on the Membership Machine Show podcast, where you talked about a gentleman That teaches party magicians that does special things with balloons and he’s built a whole membership and you would never believe that you could build on six figure ongoing business teaching people how To do special things with balloons but he’s managed it.

You could only do that in 2023. You couldn’t do that. I don’t think you could have done that 10 years ago. But I think it’s really obviously some niches, if you only got 10 people in the world, that’s a problem. But if most niches, there’s a big enough world community. So that would allow you to have a sustainable, great business, if you provide the right community environment.

So I think that’s the great thing. You’ve got to build an audience, and I would suggest that you try and build it on other people’s platforms and then site always constantly try and get them on your mailing list. Constantly offer upsells through free additional content that’s linked to the content that you’re putting on these other platforms that you don’t own.

Always encouraging the people to come to your website to get free offerings that give additional value to the things you’re publicizing on other people’s platforms. And it does, it sounds a lot of work, but these can be just one or two page PDFs that offer curated content. It’s something that I’m going to up my game in 2024.

And then, but the thing is to get them on your mailing list, because when you do your first membership, if you’ve got. But engage mailing list, it’s going to make the whole process of getting your membership site launched. So, much easier. Instead of being disappointed by the response and having to grind through the mental hurdle that presents you.

You’re, just going to have a nice launch, but not a crazy launch where you just have too many people signing up. It’s going to be controlled and you’re going to have that nice first group of students and you’ll be off and running. And that getting off and running is the biggest hurdle, getting that wheel moving.

in any kind of business is the thing that takes so much effort. So if you’ve got, if you’re attracted to those people and you’ve got them on a mailing list and then you can publicize your first course through that mailing list, that’s going to be easy. And that links to what WP Tonic offers, because one of the failings of most hosting is they don’t offer the mechanism to send out marketing email.

We do at WP Tonic, we provide very generous. Email marketing limits on our plans and through Fluent CRM and MailPoet to two powerful tools, MailPoet, and you can do both things, but MailPoet is really designed for monthly newsletters. Where FluencyRM, you can do newsletters now, but it’s really a actually more powerful, better tool than ActiveCampaign, in my opinion, and we offer that.

So you really do have a very power, because it is getting them on your newsletter, on your list, and then keeping that relationship going before you launch your first course. Does that make sense? Chris, that makes

Chris Badgett: sense. And let’s dig in a double click a little bit on this is again a wordpress versus hosted solution.

What do you like about a WordPress without getting into marketing automation yet, but just having the email list and the ability to send broadcast marketing emails. What do you like about a WordPress solution like FluentCRM that you mentioned? Versus a hosted solution like a MailChimp, ActiveCampaign, or ConvertKit.

Jonathan Denwood: I’ve just recently done a big dive in these and it is as, confusing as it was ever. Now MailChimp was the darling because you could send 2, 000 email. You could have a list of. 2, 000 subscribers, and I think you can send as many emails you like those days have gone. There was a drawback to that anyway, because the actual servers they were utilizing on that third free plan weren’t the best type of servers.

So a lot of that email never got to people’s inboxes, but they kept that well. Suppress that knowledge, but those days have long gone because it’s down to 500 contacts and there are other suits. Bravo there is being renamed. I think it was send in blue, but they’re called Bravo now.

And there’s a couple of others. But they’re going to charge you, I think, I always look at the thousand contact limit, because I think most, you’re going to get a thousand and then build from that. All of them a thousand, you’re talking about 35 a month, roughly. All the ones that I would consider. But then if you move over a thou, you get from five to a thousand to 5,000, 5,000 to 10, you are, you start then talking hundreds of dollars.

With our solution for 35 a month, 420 a year, you can send, you can have, you can send out to 10, 000 contacts unlimited email. That covers almost, apart from the top 10 percent of membership websites, that covers everybody. You will never have to pay any more. And you can send out as many bloody email as you like.

That’s why you should look at WordPress.

Chris Badgett: Yeah, that’s great. I’m not, I’m thinking hard about that myself because I have a pretty large email list. I’m paying over a thousand dollars a month to active campaign and something like a fluent CRM.

Jonathan Denwood: Yeah, I think Jack, from WP fusion was using active campaign and I think he’s just moved to fusion.

He wrote a post lately and he’s got a massive list and he’s been totally happy. So that’s a lot of money you would be saving. That’s a lot of money. Isn’t it?

Chris Badgett: It is. Let’s talk about another issue that comes up for membership site builders and course creators, which is video hosting and, maybe hosting your own videos.

Like in your WordPress media library is not a good idea today because it just requires so many resources. So I don’t, what are your thoughts on video. How to keep the costs down and use a high quality mix of tools or a certain tool to handle your video needs. Cause it’s essential for almost every membership site.

And it’s one of those things that’s really painful and hard to change later.

Jonathan Denwood: Yeah. When, I was starting, this is the other reason why you need to get your first course up and running and get your first feedback. And I keep going on about that your minimum viable course, do not get it. Do not try and build what I call war and peace straight away.

And the reason I’m subject a little bit is when I first started building WP Tonic. We had a fully hosted video solution as part of our package. And it was quite good. There was absolutely no interest in it. So it was a white labelled solution, but it was really good. But I dropped it because then we got a lot of people that had already signed up with Vimeo.

And Vimeo, unfortunately, it’s a very great company based in Holland, I think. But they’ve gone the same way as MailRite MailChimp .They’ve upped the prices quite a lot. They’re, only going in one direction, and that’s up the higher because they’ve had a problem with profitability.

They were a VC backed company, which was trying to get market share that market share as drink, the acceleration has slowed, and now they’re looking at profitability. So the prices are only going to go up. And video is a really important part of any membership website. Now you, can’t, you won’t be allowed and you shouldn’t store your video on your hosting account.

We do have ban limits with WP Tonic. We got to have them because we have had some people that like tried to use our hosting and we can do it, but we need to have a discussion with some, they’ve tried to utilize SCORM files and other very, large very much. That’s the kind of quasar professional, educational, market, marketing area at all.

These type of very specialized file formats that take a lot of bandwidth, disk and bandwidth. But video, you should not store video on your hosting account. But the good news is There is a really superb solution here that is less than a one fifth the cost of Vimeo and some of the other providers.

And that’s to use a company called Bunny. net and use a plugin called Presto Player. And combine it, we can set it up for you. All you have to do is set up your Bunny, not Bunny. net account. And then give us the login details and then we’ll link it. To the presto player that we provide as part of our package, and basically, you get superb for performance.

Plus with presto, you can have your videos accessible from your media library. So it makes the whole, process of managing and also it comes with Presto player has a really enables you to have. Multiple videos in your course, and it also gives you a great analytical data about who’s watching the videos.

It’s just a really powerful bundle, but the people it’s really hard to explain that, but we get a lot of interest with people when they are running a medium sized membership course. And they, just get in a bigger. Bigger, bill from Vimeo and there’s some other players in it that cost even more and then they realize what they should have been using Bunny.

net with Presto from the beginning because I’m always advising them but they’ve signed up with their Vimeo but they normally when they start getting traction and they coming up for renewal then they go with Bunny and they all wished that they had done it earlier.

Chris Badgett: I love that. And I’m personally in the middle of a issue with Wistia, which is a great

Jonathan Denwood: video company, but they know how to charge.

Chris Badgett: They increase their prices exponentially at the beginning of the year and not just a little bit by many, multiples. And I ended up getting stuck cause I have so many videos and all these different places, different websites. So yeah, it’s an important one to choose wisely. And I’ve been watching bunny.net over the years and they’ve stood the test of time. And people really love them for the service and, the the reliability

Jonathan Denwood: and you’ve got an alternative. I think, cause it’s been rock solid, but cloud flair. I’ve also induced a service, but I don’t know if Presto player are going to link it to CloudFlare as well.

I’ve not checked that lately. I’d imagine they’re going to add that. So you’ve got now two great choices. One at the present, I will have to double check, but Cloudflare is offering a similar system to bunny. net and they’re both great companies, aren’t they?

Chris Badgett: They are. And for you out there watching or listening you’re, listening and watching two people that have been in this industry a very long time.

So we’re very careful about the tools we pick. And what we recommend, and you’ve really done a great service, Jonathan, with WP tonic by creating so much value and removing all those barriers. Building a site that’s way more powerful than Kajabi with the same flexibility of being a WordPress solution.

You’ve done a great job. Any final words for the people before we sign off today? Yeah.

Jonathan Denwood: Just. Treat your membership as a journey. It’s like any business I think, and listening to great podcasts like your own, and hopefully you also listened to the membership machine show. But the great things is a number of podcasts, YouTube channels giving great advice and just feast yourself on that advice.

And then it’s about building some online presence. Getting them on your mailing list soon as I talk to somebody and they say, yeah, I’ve got a mailing list. I’ve got 500 people that I’ve attracted to my content. I know that their membership site is probably going to be a success that they’re, they’ve got the will moving.

Too many people jump into the membership website and they’ve not thought about. Getting a mailing list. They’ve not thought about getting Facebook group because yeah. I would not build a enormous business on your Facebook group, but would I use a Facebook group to get my first 200 300 people? Sure. Would I use?

TikTok to get 300 subscribers. Would I use YouTube? Anybody that’s building a membership website that hasn’t got a effective YouTube channel is not attracting people to the subject. Alarm bells come up to me because it’s totally free and you should be putting up some content. But you should be using that content to drive them to a website and get them on a mailing list.

Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. So go check out WP hyphen tonic. com. It’s an incredible value for 35 a month. If you try to do it all yourself, you could be spending 10 times that amount with other tools.

Jonathan Denwood: It’s not only that it’s the time you’re going to be utilizing the time. That you should be trying to build that mailing list and building a really nice minimum viable course because it is a lot of work.

But the beauty is with AI, Artificial Intelligence, and it’s never been easier to write your syllabus, to write your course, to get the ball rolling. To edit the content. It’s never been easier to get with your fantastic plugin and your team and I’ve got to say what Chris and his team provide in support is just amazing.

It’s never been an easier time to get that wheel rolling and to build a membership site, is there Chris?

Chris Badgett: That’s right. Now’s the time. So thank you. Thank you for coming on the show, Jonathan. I really appreciate it. Go check out WP tonic and subscribe to the membership machine podcast. Thank you for coming back on the show.

We really appreciate it.

Jonathan Denwood: It’s been always a pleasure, Chris, having discussions with you.

Chris Badgett: And that’s a wrap for this episode of LMS cast. Did you enjoy that episode? Tell your friends and be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss the next episode. And I’ve got a gift for you over at LifterLMS. Go to lifterlms. com forward slash gift.

Keep learning, keep taking action, and I’ll see you in the next episode.

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