5 Steps to Build a Membership Site (No Tech Experience Required)

Website & Technology September 10, 2021

Terry Ibele

By Terry Ibele

“I want to create a membership site where people can fill out a form and pay online to get access to my community and resources.”

This is what Lily, the membership manager of a small Library Association wanted to accomplish.

After doing some research online, she felt lost. All the articles she came across advised her to integrate Wordpress plugins, create code, or hire someone who knew how to build a membership site. Unfortunately she didn’t have the know-how or the budget to do any of those things.

Luckily, I happened to meet Lily in an online forum and showed her the easiest way to create one all by herself. In just a weekend she had an amazing membership site setup for her association and in just a few days, two new people had registered and paid for a membership online.

If you’re like Lily and want to build a membership site for your organization (but don’t have the technical expertise or resources to do so), you’ve come to the right place. 

Read More: The Ultimate Guide to Creating A Membership Site

 

What Is a Membership Website?

A membership website is a site that offers gated content to members. Once people sign up, they can enter their log in information to access exclusive content, such as educational resources, industry reports, newsletters, forums, and more. 

Membership can be free, paid, or tiered. If this sounds like an administrative nightmare, don't worry because a great membership website should be linked to your member database and take care of all these administrative details automatically.

A membership website is like having an extra staff person who can: 

  • register new members and event attendees
  • process monthly dues, donations, and event payments
  • update member profiles
  • email members with event invites, reminders, and monthly newsletters
  • distribute resources like courses, industry reports, and other materials
  • act as the contact person when members have questions, or need help

How to Build a Membership Site

Why Do I Need a Membership Site? 

The most successful membership organizations use their website to grow, engage, and retain their members, while saving time and money on administrative tasks.

Once your website is set up, it will run on its own with minimal effort, providing your members with opportunities to engage with your organization and each other through things like:

  • Members-only content
  • Events calendar and registration pages
  • Newsletter or blog
  • Member forum
  • Member directory
  • Online store
  • And much more!

On top of all this, your membership site will automatically take care of all registrations, payments, contact information updates, and even email reminders. Overall, a good membership site can save you about 20 hours a week or more in administrative work. That’s because it runs like a machine in the background, processing and updating information while you can focus on other tasks, like creating value for your members and running events.

 

What Makes a Successful Membership Website?

The average time a new visitor spends on a website is less than 15 seconds

This means that when a new potential member comes across your website, you have 15 seconds to convince them why it's worth staying and maybe even signing up for membership. 

Here are a few things you can do to capture new visitors' interest:

1. Clean design: Before visitors even get a chance to read a single word on your homepage, they'll have an emotional response to the overall feel of your website. Websites that elicit a positive emotional response have lots of high quality imagery, aren't overcrowded by lots of text, and have a cohesive color scheme. 

2. Clear messaging: Why should people care about your organization? What exactly are you offering? What are the benefits of joining as a member? Make this information easy to find, read, and understand. 

3. Call-to-action (CTA) buttons: Don't make visitors search around for the pages they need. Include prominent buttons that invite visitors to check out your membership benefits and join. 

 

5 Steps to Create an Amazing Membership Website with No Technical Expertise

If you're looking to build a membership site, there are five main steps you need to complete. Here they are:

How to Build a Membership Site

Step 1: Plan out Your Membership Model

Before I explain how to build a site by yourself, some prep work needs to be completed ahead of time. The organizations that do this prep work end up saving hours of time in the setup stage.

The first thing you need to prepare is your membership model. 

 

What is a Membership Model?

A membership model is simply how and why people join your organization and what they get in return. I’ve seen organizations with unclear models waste their time creating website features no one uses and pages no one clicks on.

To avoid this, you’ll need a well-thought out membership model which answers two main questions:

  1. What value do members receive for joining? Usually paid memberships offer access to monthly newsletters, member directories, online courses, workshops, industry reports, networking events, and discounts on conferences and other events or merchandise. If you know the exact reason members join your organization, you should try your best to offer that value online.

  2. What are the different membership levels? Free, Individual, Group, Student, and Professional levels are some of the most common levels I’ve seen. Take a look at some of the membership levels of The Kapole Chamber of Commerce below. You can see how they’ve clearly laid out their pricing structure, and what each level gets access to.

    Membership Levels Member Website

If you’ve got clear answers to the above questions, you’ll have a good guide to the types of pages and features you’ll need to implement on your website. There’s only one more thing you need to prepare to drastically reduce the setup time of your new website.

 

Step 2: Clean Up Your Contact Database

One of the biggest advantages of a membership site is that it connects with your contact database to automate payments, registrations, and other information.

While it can be a pain, taking an hour or two to clean up your current contact database can save you twice the time afterwards (I’ve seen Excel used most often). Organizations that don’t do this end up spending hours removing duplicate entries and double-checking dates and payments after their website and database are connected.

To clean up your contact database, here are some things to look for:

  • Remove duplicated entries
  • Standardize City and State names (ex. “Washington” for all entries, instead of “WA”, “Washington”, “Wshngtn”, etc.)
  • Standardize dates for join date, renewal date, etc.
  • Standardize names for all membership levels.

If you are using Excel, here’s a sample of how your cleaned-up spreadsheet should be laid out.

How to Build a Membership Site

Once you’ve got a well-thought out membership model and a cleaned up contact database, you’re ready to create your membership site, which brings us to the next step.

 

Step 3: Use This Easy Software to Build a Membership Website in Seconds

While there are many paths you can take to build your site (you can build a website from scratch, hire a freelancer, integrate membership-plugins for Wordpress, etc.), my recommendation is to use something called membership management software — an inexpensive (and sometimes free) software that exists to assist those who don’t have any technical expertise, but still want an amazing, robust membership site. Once you select a membership management software, it can create a pre-populated site for you in minutes.

 

What is Membership Management Software?

Membership management software is a type of software built to save membership organizations time and money when it comes to member management and administrative work.

On one hand, it will allow you to create a professionally designed membership site in a matter of minutes — complete with member-only access pages, an events calendar, a join us page, member directories, and more. The best part is that anyone without any technical expertise can use it, because of its easy-to-use, drag-and-drop tools.

In the GIF below, I'm using Wild Apricot to drag and drop a membership application onto the web page I'm editing. Any other feature you'd like to include, such as a member directory, slideshow, or subscription form can be added in the same way.

Membership site Drag and Drop 

On the other hand, membership management software also automates and eliminates most of a membership manager's administrative work, such as processing registrations and payments, designing newsletters, automating reminder emails, and summarizing finances. Here’s an overview of the main features a good membership management software should offer:

Membership Website 

Be sure to check out our Consumer Guide, which compares the top options for membership management software (we did all the research so you don't have to!). You can download it for free here.

 

The #1 Membership Management Software to Use

Here at Wild Apricot, we're proud to be voted the #1 membership management software on the market and help over 20,000 membership organizations save time and money.

If you'd like to see whether Wild Apricot may be the right choice for your organization, you can start your free, 30-day trial of a premium Wild Apricot account here.

Wild Apricot also has a free basic plan you can use indefinitely. Find more details on our free plan here.

WildApricot Membership Website

Another software option to consider is MemberClicks. While Wild Apricot is perfect for many small organizations, MemberClicks builds integrated membership management software solutions specifically for small-to-midsized professional associations, trade associations and chambers of commerce.

MemberClicks offers intuitive association management systems, learning management software, event management solutions, and job board software, built to save time, save money, grow membership and increase revenue.

Click here to learn more about MemberClicks can help your organization by connecting you to connected solutions.

Once you've started your free trial of Wild Apricot (or the provider of your choice), there are a number of pages you’ll need to setup that are proven to attract and convert new members online. I talk about which pages those are in the next section.

 

Step 4: The 8 Pages You Need to Attract and Convert New Members

Research reveals that 74% of visitors feel frustration when web pages don’t reflect their interests or expectations — unfortunately frustrated website visitors leave and don’t come back.

In order to discover what information visitors (who are potential members) are looking for on your website, I studied hundreds of membership websites and spoke with dozens of membership managers. Here are the four most important things your website must have:

  1. Your organization’s purpose, mission, and values: Visitors want to know these things to see if they align with their personal values and needs before they will consider becoming a member.
  2. Access to specialized information and resources: This is your chance to show website visitors how you’re creating value for your industry that can’t be found elsewhere. 
  3. They want to see you have a thriving, engaged community: One of the top reasons people join membership organizations is to be part of a community of like-minded individuals. If you can show this on your website, you’re one step closer to getting a new member online.
  4. They want easy ways to pay or join online: Many older membership sites ask visitors to download, print, and mail in PDF membership forms. Unfortunately this slows down the registration process and actually creates holes that many potential members slip through (printer problems can stop someone from becoming a member). Offering online registration and payments for events can drastically increase your new member conversions, because the process is simple, quick, and people actually expect it.

To offer these four things in an easy-to-find way, most membership sites organize themselves around eight different pages. When done right, these pages help attract and convert your website visitors into members. Here are those pages:

(Note: membership management software makes it easy to create these pages. If you choose Wild Apricot, we even have pre-loaded templates that have these pages already setup for you.)

 

1. Homepage

This is the first page your website visitors will land on, so think about what information you want them to see right away. Many nonprofits put their main call to action on this page (like, “Join our organization”), along with news, featured members, upcoming events, and lots of pictures.

Here’s an example of a great Homepage from the Webb Mountain Discovery Zone.

 

2. About Us

This page is where you tell the story of your organization and the people who guided the nonprofit to success.

Most nonprofits include their mission, vision and values on this page, as well as profiles of the founder and the current board members.

Here is an example of a great About Us page from the Greater Kendall Business Association.

 

3. Join Us

This page has all the information about what a new member might need to know before joining your organization as well as the online form to join.

Including a list of benefits to joining can help entice potential new members, just like in this example of a Join Us page from the Kapolei Chamber of Commerce.

 

4. Donate

This page has all the information about what a potential donor needs to know before donating to your organization as well as the online form to donate. If you'd like to make sure this page is optimized for maximum donations, here's a complete guide on how to build this page out, and here’s an example of a great donation page from Rotary.

 

5. Events

This page is where you list all your events. The best way to do this is by posting a calendar showing the dates and times of your upcoming events. It’s also a good idea to list some benefits of joining one of your events.

Remember to allow online registration and payments so visitors can register for your events with ease.

It’s relatively simple to create this page using membership management software, just like the Wayne County Chamber of Commerce, which actually used Wild Apricot’s software to create their website and events page.

 

6. Resources (if applicable)

If part of the value your nonprofit creates is from publishing resources, this is the place to host them.

Here is an example of a good resources page of publications from the Medical Library Association.

 

7. Members-Only Area (if applicable)

There are quite a few reasons why you would have a members-only section set up on your website. In some cases, this type of section may be needed for privacy and security reasons, preventing the release of confidential information.

In other scenarios, a members-only section might host exclusive resources, or a member director for paying members of the organization. Just seeing the "Members-only" tab on your website is enough to entice some potential members to join your organization online, knowing they'll get instant access to these things.

 

8. Contact Us

This page includes basic contact information for your organization. You can also choose to include a newsletter signup here that covers the benefits of receiving your monthly membership newsletter.

 

The above eight pages will give you a great starting point to building your online presence and attracting new members online. If you’re looking for extra tips on how to design your website like the top nonprofits, I’ve written a full guide on the 22 features the top nonprofit websites have.

There’s just one last step to get your organization’s current members connected through your website.

 Themes and templates banner 

Step 5: Upload Your Contact Database

There are three main benefits to uploading your contact database into your membership management software, thus connecting them with your website:

  • You can automate dues, payments, and reminders online, saving hours of work each week
  • Member profiles will update instantly once a current member interacts with your website (ex. registering for an event)
  • It’s quicker and easier to communicate with members through automated emails and newsletters

Membership management softwares make it simple to upload your entire membership database in a matter of minutes, especially if your current database is in Excel.

Below is a GIF showing how easy it is to import contacts using Wild Apricot as an example.

Easiest Membership site

After you import your contacts, the next step is to map out the matching fields from your contact database to Wild Apricot’s fields.

Now that all your contacts are uploaded into Wild Apricot, it’s a good idea to email them to let them know about your new website and that you’ll be accepting online payments now. 

Congratulations! That is the final step to complete your site. Now you can sit back and relax, the membership management software will help you keep an up-to-date website and take care of all your administrative work now: registering members, event attendees, processing payments, and updating member records.

If you'd like to see how some organizations have built their websites using membership management software, I've included three examples below.

 

3 Great Examples of Organizations Using Wild Apricot

Here are three examples of organizations that have built websites using Wild Apricot's website builder. While you can't see how these organizations are managing their membership in the backend, you can see how they've organized their website online. Some highlights to look for when you explore each site include:

  • Simple online membership applications
  • Event calendars
  • Social media integration
  • Member directories
  • Donation pages
  • News, Blog, About Us pages
  • Beautiful pictures of members in slideshows
 

1. Southern Business Women's Network

Membership site Steps 

2. Webb Mountain Discovery Zone

Membership site 

3. Single Parent Provision

Membership site steps 

How Do I Integrate Wild Apricot With My WordPress Site?

Already have a Wordpress site? You can still use Wild Apricot to connect your site to a member database and manage your membership all in one place. Check out this guide for more details on how this can be done. 

 

How to Get Your Free Trial of Wild Apricot

To get started with your free, 30-day trial of Wild Apricot, simply click here.

Membership site Steps

 

You’ll be taken to a registration page where you can enter your account details. Once you click submit, you’ll activate a free 30-day trial of the paid version of Wild Apricot. This means that you will have all the access to all the functionality that our paid clients receive for 30 days.

If you'd like to see what other options you have as far as website builders go, be sure to check out our top 10 picks in this article

Best of luck with your membership website!

 

Additional Resources:

The Membership Growth Report:

Benchmarks & Insights for Growing Revenue and Constituents

Get the report now!

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