How to create a membership website free with WordPress

WordPress plugins to create a basic membership website

People standing together - create a community with a membership website

Do you want to create a website with membership and user login? There are many paid membership plugins for WordPress, but what can you do for free? Let’s look at some basic options.

There are many ways to create a members-only website and the whole website can be hidden from the public and only a home page and login/sign-up page can be accessible to non-members. At the other extreme, a site could be publically accessible on the web, but has a small section, perhaps only a few pages, accessible to logged in members.

  • Membership sites can be free or paid
  • Membership plugins can be free or paid
  • The whole site can be membership-only
  • Only certain pages can be for members
  • A membership site can build a community

It is possible to earn a passive income with paid membership sites and it could be a good source of income. It is not the only way to monetize a website and you could show adverts for example, here I look at two alternatives to Google AdSense for earning an income.

There are many possibilities for membership sites and downloads of files, resources, images, PDFs and other things could be placed on a page accessible only to logged in members, for example.

Becoming a free or paid member could unlock one or more pages and allow the user to access content not available to non-members. For example, you could restrict comments on posts to logged-in members to cut down on spam. You could create courses and materials only for members.

How you create a membership site depends on the features you want and there are some excellent plugins with advanced features, like drip-feeding content to members based on the date they joined, or work like study materials or courses where you complete one part before you can go on to the next.

Those plugins tend to be complicated or they charge a monthly or yearly fee. Here I look at some simple and basic membership options that are easy to set up and will not cost anything. They will get you started with a membership site for free.

It is easy to experiment with different membership plugins and learn how they work, but once you have hundreds or thousands of paying members, it is hard to switch. Try a few options now, settle on one, then build your membership site and stick with your choice.

WordPress membership with no plugin

WordPress has membership features built in and you are a member of your website. You log in and are given access to parts of the site that the public cannot see, but you probably don’t think of it as a membership site.

There are few features and mainly the membership options are aimed at the writers and editors creating the site content and the admin developing the site rather than the general public.

You may be the only member and have every role, but it is possible to open it up to others. If you want to build a membership, go to Settings > General and tick the Anyone can register checkbox. Set the New user role to Subscriber.

WordPress website membership options in Settings

A subscriber is a member of your site. They can log in using the usual form at yoursite.com/login and non-members can register at yoursite.com/wp-signup.

Subscribers have the least of all permissions and they cannot access any admin features, see other members, post articles, and so on. Basically, they can login and WordPress recognises them as logged in, but that is about it.

One advantage of allowing people to login is that in Settings > Discussion is a Users must be registered and logged in to comment option. This is useful for preventing spam comments. However, a disadvantage of allowing anyone to register is spam registrations by bots, although this can be prevented by a security or anti-spam plugin.

WordPress post visibility options. Restrict who can see a post

WordPress membership is poor for controlling who can view posts and pages. Click the Public link next to Visibility in the post editor and there are Public, Private and Password Protected options. If you have an email subscriber list, the password to a protected members-only page could be included in a mailshot “Sign up to my email newsletter and get access to password protected resources” or something like that.

WordPress built in membership features is not good for public use and there are better alternatives.

Members WordPress membership

Let’s take a step up the membership features with a free plugin simply called Members. This adds basic membership features and it may be all some people need.

There are two parts to it and the first is a user role editor. WordPress comes with Subscriber, Contributor, Author, Editor and Admin roles. Admin is the ultimate and users have the power to do anything they want on the site, even delete it, so never make anyone admin, apart from yourself. Subscribers can only log in, but the other roles, Contributor, Author and Editor, have increasing permissions to create, edit and publish posts.

Members plugin in WordPress creating a user role and setting permissions

The Members plugin enables you to create additional roles, either from scratch or by cloning an existing one. It is entirely optional, but you could clone Subscriber and name it Member. Set it as the default role users are given when they register with your site in WordPress Settings > General.

The second part of the Members plugin is to restrict content. At the bottom of the WordPress post editor is a panel than enables you to choose who can view this post. Leave it blank and everyone can, but tick user roles and only people with those roles can view it.

WordPress Members plugin options to determine who can read a post on a website

A customised message can be created which is displayed to non-members if they try to view the post. The classic WordPress post editor is used, so you can add text, headings, images, links and so on, and make it look good or add links to send them to the registration page.

There is a lot the Members plugin does not have, such as accepting payments for membership, but it covers the basics and is easy to use.

Simple Membership WordPress membership

Simple Membership is a free plugin designed to be simple, as you probably guessed from the name, but it is a big step up from the previous options covered.

Any number of membership levels can be created, like Basic and Pro, Bronze, Silver, Gold or whatever you want to call them. Members can be added manually or they can use a registration form to sign up.

The plugin automatically creates several pages, like Member Login, Your Profile, Members Home Page, Membership Renewal and Upgrade. You just have to link to them or put them on a menu. They can be customized to a certain extent and the membership functions are shortcodes, so you can put images and text before or after.

Simple Membership WordPress plugin showing the member pages

Many settings can be customized, like the emails sent to people when they sign up, confirm their email, or reset their password, whether the admin bar shows, whether users can delete their account, and so on. There are a lot of settings, but they are fairly straightforward.

Accounts can be free or paid and can be a one-time fee or recurring monthly or yearly payment. PayPal, Stripe and Braintree payment systems are available. Setting up payments is not easy and requires external accounts like PayPal to be correctly set up and configured. You might need help with this if you have never done it before. It is not because Simple Membership is hard, it is mainly the payment services themselves.

Whether you offer free or paid memberships, content is easily protected. A nice feature is the More block in WordPress post editor. Everything before More can be seen by all, but only members see what comes after.

This means you can create an intro and body for posts, with everyone able to read the intro, but only members can read the body. You can have a message saying something like “Become a member to continue reading/access the resources.”

Protecting WordPress posts with Simple Membership

The WordPress post editor has a section at the bottom with options to enable or disable protection, and which membership levels can access the page. Bulk protection can be applied by assigning a membership level to a WordPress post category. There is also a full list of posts with checkboxes to set membership levels.

There are advanced plugins that do more, but Simple Membership focuses on the basics and it makes creating a membership site as easy as possible. Free and paid add-ons are available to add extra features and functions. This is a good plugin worth considering.

Paid Memberships Pro WordPress membership

Paid Memberships Pro is another step up in features and complexity. The plugin is still free and there is no requirement to pay, but there are options to buy technical support and paid add-ons.

The plugin has a brilliant dashboard with widgets that show membership statistics like signups and cancellations, and money earned from paying members, today, this week, this month and this year. It is very useful if you take your membership site seriously and intend to earn an income from it.

You create membership levels, set the payment amount for them and the billing cycle, such as daily, weekly, monthly or yearly. You can even have trial membership or a discounted initial period to encourage people to sign up. It automatically creates several pages, like Account, Billing, Cancellation, invoice and more, but they can be created manually if you prefer.

Paid Membership Pro plugin for WordPress showing membership levels

Setting it up to take payments is the most complicated part of setting up Paid Memberships Pro and it is not easy. Stripe, several PayPal options, and several other payment methods are available. Each one requires different information and, of course, need to be set up first. So you need to have a Stripe account and know the publishable and secret keys, for example.

If all this is too much for you, payment can be ignored and membership can be free. You could set up a free membership level to begin with and then add a paid premium level once you get to know the plugin.

Controlling who can see WordPress content with Paid Memberships Pro plugin

Content is easily restricted to members and specific membership levels. For example, it is possible to create a WordPress post category that requires a specific membership. When creating a post, just select the category, such as Members.

Alternatively, checkboxes for membership levels are displayed in the sidebar of the WordPress post editor and you can simply tick the levels that can access the post. Non-members see a message saying the post is protected and there are buttons to login or register.

There are several free add-ons to add extra features to Paid Memberships Pro and around 60 paid add-ons. This means you are not limited to the features in the plugin and more can be added if they are needed. This is a great free membership plugin.


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