How to Create A WordPress Membership Site (either paid, or non paid)

by Nina Cross · 50 comments

If you heard about a way to grow your community while increasing your income at the same time, would you be interested in learning more about it?

If so, it may be time for you to add a membership program to your site.

What’s a Membership Program?

A membership program is a members-only section of your site. Usually, to gain access to this section, people must pay to join the community, which is how you earn more money while building your community.

There’s several different types of membership programs, but before we jump into the specifics, lets look at two examples:

Example 1: Blogging Advice Membership Site

Leo Babauta, of Zen Habits fame, and Mary Jaksch run a project called A-List Blogging Bootcamps where they teach people how to become successful bloggers. They trade expertise for membership fees. (Their site design is powered by Thesis, too, by the way :-D).

Example 2: Makeup Advice Membership Site

University of Makeup offers their members a ton of videos to help them learn how to apply makeup flawlessly. Non-members are able to get a sneak peak at their video collection, while members have full access to the all of the videos they have to offer. Again, expertise for cash.

Notice a trend here?

In each example, someone trades their expertise for ongoing, monthly revenue. It’s a good business model.

Now it’s your turn. What do you specialize in? How can you trade your expertise for cash? If you’re having problems coming up with ideas, here are more examples:

  1. A woodworker can provide members exclusive access to woodworking plans as well as insight to the tools of the trade.
  2. A do-it-yourself pro can offer members tutorials for anything from fixing leaky faucets to installing a garbage disposal.
  3. A cooking aficionado can give members access to videos on how to prepare simple meals for families on-the-go.
  4. A graphic designer can grant members access to a variety of graphics for use in print, on the web, and in multimedia mediums.
  5. A professional landscaper can help people who don’t want to pay for a pricey lawn service by providing tips and tricks to keep their lawns in tip-top shape all year long.

The possibilities are endless.

So now I’m sure you’re thinking, “That’s great, Nina, but how the heck do I add a membership program to my WordPress site?”

Do not fear, my friend. I will walk you through the painless process in just three steps. Let’s get started!

How to Create a Membership Site with WordPress

WishList Member is my membership program software of choice.

It’s extremely easy to use, integrates with WordPress flawlessly, and offers great customer support.

Not to mention, it is flexible enough to meet the needs of everyone. Need to offer different membership options? Want it to play nicely with your shopping cart software? Wish to offer multi-level access to your members? If so, WishList Member has you covered.

It’s as easy to install as a plugin because it is a plugin, which means you can have your membership program up and running in seconds!

Step 1 – Upload WishList Member to Your WordPress Site

When you first sign up for WishList Member, you will receive an email with a link to download the plugin. Click on the link and save the file to your computer. You will then need to use an FTP program, such as Filezilla, to upload the “wishlist-member” folder to your plugins directory.

Warning – Be sure your FTP program is set to binary before uploading the plugin files.

Step 2 – Activate the WishList Member Plugin

Once the “wishlist-member” folder has been successfully uploaded to your server, go to your WordPress Dashboard, and then navigate to the Plugins area to activate the WishList Member plugin.

Step 3 – Enter Your Products Key for WishList Member

Once it is activated, look in the left sidebar to find WL Plugins, and then click on WL Member. Enter the products key along with the email address you used when you signed up for WishList Member.

Boom! Done.

You now have a brand new, shiny membership program on your site. That couldn’t have been easier, right?

A Quick Look at WishList Member

At the top of your screen, you will see the following WishList Member pages you can now explore:

Dashboard – This is just like your WordPress Dashboard, but it gives information about your members as well as WishList Member news.

Settings – On this page, you can configure the settings of the plugin to suit your needs.

Members – This is where you can manage your members or add them manually.

Membership Levels – You can add membership levels and content here.

Sequential Upgrade – If you wish to give your members access to your content over time, rather than all at once, you can use this page to set up sequential upgrades.

Integration – You can integrate your shopping cart software with WishList Member on this page.

The Bottom Line

As I mentioned earlier, WishList Member has an extremely supportive community.

Be sure to take advantage of the variety of video tutorials, articles, and support forums WishList Member has to offer. Within no time, you will be on your way to building a flourishing membership program for your community.

Do you run a membership program on your site? If so, how’s it going for you? If not, do you plan to start one soon? Let me know in the comments below.

About the Author: Nina Cross is a WordPress + Thesis Web Designer who is also one of our featured designers here at DIYthemes. Not only does she specialize in creating clear, engaging websites for her clients, but she also strives to ensure every site she creates is eye-catching, unique, and just plain awesome. You should check out Nina's web design business over at Nina Cross Design. You can also connect with her on Twitter here.

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Rob @ Atlanta Real Estate

Timely info, personally.

I’ve been mulling a site for stock trading with a membership option for some time.


Nina Cross

Glad to hear it came at the perfect time. Best of luck!

Chris Jaeger

Hi Nina, great article. Can you tell me if Wishlist is stable/compatible with Thesis 1.8 (I think I’m running). I tried it awhile back and I think there were some issues? Thanks. Chris

Derek Halpern

I’m using it with 1.8, and it works fine for my site.

Chris Jaeger

Derek, which of your sites are you running Thesis with WL on?


I have setup membership sites on numerous wordpress themes and by far the easiest to work with was Thesis although I’ve setup custom membership sites and also have integrates plugins such as s2member which is also a membership plugin with a hefty amount of options… I’ll give Wishlist a try and see how it is as well, thanks.

Nina Cross

Thesis has a way of making everything easier. You can’t go wrong with Thesis and WishList 🙂


Ryan, what other products have you used that are comparable to Wishlist? Have any favorites?

Himanshu Chanda

I guess you should have even added a freemium hack on wordpress for the same. I completely understand that premium products rock but need to know how startups and non-profits are crushing it with their wp expertise

Derek Halpern

It’s a paid product, but inexpensive. I don’t know of a free product that has the same functionality.


Try S2 Member… It’s free and has a lot of functionality. Integrates easily with PayPal.

Kimberly Yow

I’ve been thinking about starting a membership site so this blog post was very timely for me. I love the fact that you included links to example sites and especially that one of them runs on Thesis, which is of course what I use 🙂

I’ve looked at WishList Member, as well as other plug-ins, so it’s nice to know that others have had good results with WishList. Thanks for the info!

Nina Cross

No problem, Kimberly. It’s always nice to see examples of a particular software in action, isn’t it? The WishList Member site also has a showcase in case you want to check out some more.


Compatibility Issues:

If any of you leaving positive comments are podcasting please let us know. We purchased WishlistMember only to find after a lot of resources were invested that it does not support well known plugins such as Blubrry from PowerPress.

It’s been six months, perhaps things have changed.

Nina Cross

I know things are constantly changing so it may be worth it to shoot them an email to see if it is now supported. If it isn’t, you can ask them to provide some alternatives that you can check out.


I recently tried to implement Wishlist because everyone was always raving about it. To be honest I found the plugin to be very unfriendly and awkwardly difficult to implement decently.

I’m used to diving into all sorts of CSS and PHP until I get it working. The options panel can use a lot of improvement and clarification. I asked for a refund and promptly got one, so kudos to their support. I was hoping to have a membership set up in a weekend, but after 4 days working on it I still didn’t get very far.

Decided to go with a Wordpress Network for my membership for now. Most likely will try Wishlist again in the future to enjoy the benefits of automation, but I think it’s fair to say that an average Wordpress user (and I always thought I was somewhat advanced =S) can have quite a bit of trouble with this plugin.

Nina Cross

Glad to hear their customer service was stellar.

Have you tried using their Wizard? That may be a new feature that can help you set it up quickly and easily.


I have been looking for a something to add membership profiles to a site that each member can create and edit. Have you seen one that works well? I’ve tried one or two with little success.

Nina Cross

Have you tried checking the WishList Member forums? Someone may be able to help you out with this custom functionality.

Justice Wordlaw IV

I have seen this plugin before and it looked really cool to use. I know for my most recent blog I will be adding an membership portion for people and I will be most likely be using this program.

Nina Cross

Awesome! Good luck with it, Justice 🙂


Hi, I’m Albert la Grange from the University of Makeup. Nina, thank you for mentioning us in your post. We’ve done a lot of testing and I can certainly say that Wishlist Member is the best membership software for Wordpress. They also have a Wizard now which makes it very easy to setup your membership site.

Nina Cross

No problem, Albert. I’m glad to hear WishList has been working well for you.

Tom Harrison Jr

I have offered my time to a small club (120 members) and have installed what I take to be the leading free offering, BuddyPress. While the software is good, and there are several BP compatible plugins that did what I wanted, I have struggled with the theme I chose, which, like Thesis offers a degree of configurability. Yet each time I do a WP update, the theme seems to lose it’s recollection of all my settings (colors, headers, etc.). After the second time, I learned how to get around this, but … c’mon, really? This would never happen with Thesis.

While I am overall pleased with BP, I had looked at WishList and had to rule it out because my (non-paying) customer was too cheap :-). I shouldn’t even mention that it’s a yacht club, and let’s just say, there is plenty of money if you know where to look.

Any comparison of WishList to BuddyPress would be welcome. Although, like Thesis, it seems you get what you pay for.


Nina Cross

It’s a shame that some people aren’t willing to spend a little extra money to get a significantly better solution for their business.

Sorry that I don’t have any insight to the BuddyPress vs WishList comparison for you.


Hello Tom,

Buddypress is a social network framework that sits on top of Wordpress (technically, it’s a plugin, but conceptually it’s meant to add social networking capability to one’s Wordpress site, at the very least). One would apply Wishlist Member to a “regular” Wordpress site, or implement it to a Buddypress-enabled site.

However, it is my understanding that Wishlist Member is not compatible with the Buddypress plugin, nor is Wishlist working to attain compatibility (per a recent Wishlist Admin forum response to me). Unfortunate since Wishlist Member rocks!


For membership plugin, take a look to DAP ( ). I’ve no affiliate link with them but they got a good “dripping” concept where you could easily combine posts, pages and files to be delivered in various sequences.


I think it’s valuable.easy.affordable. I would use it. I guess when the time comes I’ll buy it.

Nina Cross

Yeah, it really isn’t a great deal of money in the grand scheme of things. Best of luck planning your membership site!

Christine Lim

Hi, I am looking to start a blog (for the first time!!). I chanced upon and it says at the bottom of the page that it is powered by DIY Themes WordPress.

Should I go to WordPress to sign up for a blog before signing up with DIY Themes so that I can get a membership site that makes money for me?

Please advise.


Hey Christine, did you ever get your answer? if not, send me an email: connect (at) bunkbedinnovations (dot) com 🙂 Blessings!


I cannot believe nobody has mentioned s2member!

s2member is free, it has more features than Wishlist and it is also much easier to use. In short s2member is far superior to Wishlist.

Up until 6 months ago Wishlist did not even have content protection on file download links. So basically anybody could download a members only file if one of your members gave them a link. Wishlist only recently added content protection. s2member has had content protection for a long time now.

I am not sure if Wishlist member supports WordpressMU but if they do it is a recent upgrade. Up until 6 months ago they did not support WordpressMU. I realise this is not an issue for a lot of people but it certainly was for me. s2member has inbuilt support for WordpressMU.

I could go on for hours but it all boils down to one thing……… s2member is free and has more options and features than Wishlist.

John Gideon Howard

I’m running into a serious limitation with s2, in that it does not contain a built-in option for displaying a membership directory. Furthermore, searching users by custom fields is notably difficult, even by their own developers. They seem to be looking for ways to address these issues in a way that is backwards-compatible, but this was promised over a year ago. My guess is that it must be a difficult situation is such a commonly-requested feature has not been implemented yet.


Do any of these have a publicly searchable interface? I need something where people can search by location, name and member type. It would cut my time to market. Quite happy to pay.


I been recently working with a group that is doing philanthropy work related to leadership, so no money available for WishList at moment. I tried S2 but could not figure out how to get a profile or member directory with user friendly links. Buddypress seemed to automatically have nice set-ups for this but it said it was not compatible with Thesis without adding a bunch of other stuff, then the style looked horrible. While it is nice to know of a paid option that is said to be good, my questions would relate to how it looks, and what directory and profile options it offers. Is there any known compatibility issues being reported? Any example member sites that use thesis and WishList that we can check out?

Davon Smith

Thanks a lot. I was looking forward to such kind of post. I was about to build a membership site.

ashish patel

great post. thanks for sharing. i’ll go for wishlist member whenever i make a membership site out of wordpress 🙂

Liz Fulcher

I’ve heard that today, DAP Digital Access Pass is superior to Wishlist. Anyone have any experiences with DAP they can share?


hi Nina
I have a problem with WishList it takes away navigation bar from thesis (just purchesd it) in IE, Safary and Chore, works ok on Forefox

if there is a quick solution could you please help me out
Many Thanks

Nina Cross

It’s hard to say without seeing the site. What’s the URL?

Dave Arison

I have been using the Thesis them for building membership websites with wishlist member.

This theme is one of the best ones.

Dave Arison

LeeAnn Webster

Do you recommend WishList Member over Digital Access Pass? I’m torn between the two. I have a Thesis site and am relatively comfortable with technology, but I want something that’s easy to install and manage. Right now I’m using Paypal, so DAP seems like a good solution because of the integrated shopping cart and more flexible drip content (I will like need the drip feature). I’d also like to add a members-only forum – does that make a difference in terms of which one I should choose? Also, I want to keep my current site as is but add a few pages that will be members only (all the other pages will be public and free). Your insights/thoughts are appreciated. Thanks!


Any suggestions if I’m interested in starting a Job Board where Recruiters can pay to see profiles/resumes?

Thanks in advance!

Susan Branch Smith

Nina, nice article. Thank you.

I’m about to set up two membership websites and also have liked what I’ve seen of WishList. To display a membership directory, tho, do I need anything extra — such as “Business Directory Plug-in”?

Many thanks!

Janny Manla

Straight to the point and practical answer. Thank you!


Great article. Straight and to the point. Easy to understand and informative. Thank you for sharing.

Mj Ces

This is a business model being missed by a lot of people. There is just a huge potential to this. WishList has been around for quite some time, quite affordable especially if you are just building one membership site.


I’ve paid for and tried WL, Premise and aMember.

WList has its problems – the drip feed/content feeder is horrible to use. I have 52 weeks of content so I have to create 52 (!) products and shift people up them. Shocker.
Callbacks post purchase are tricky (the user guides are woeful).
The option to force unsubscribe people who cancel, from a MailCHimp/other mailing list is BLOODY AWESOME, I wish Premise did this.

Premise is shocking – a total mess. Good idea, bad implementation. No way to set currency, the shortcodes are a nightmare. The integration into WP itself isn’t too bad. Using tags for access levels etc.

I think the larger issue is Wordpress wasn’t (Really) meant for membership sites. htaccess rewrite issues, plugin conflicts (amember plugin kills MaxBlogPress Ninja Affiliate)…it’s a nightmare.

For me, if you’re going to run a membership site, using content, you use amember.

I think WP needs a nice paywall plugin that does a few detects on # of visits, puts up the wall or cuts content at read-more points and offers a kick out to Paypal. That’s it. (Oh, I am considering developing this – any devs out there want to do some work together let me know).


Actually re: Wishlists’ content drip.

A way around this is to use MailChimp/aWeber.
Add people to a list, set up A/Rs for that list.
Each message can refer to a file or some content on S3 or in the email itself or hosted on MC/aWeber.

I guess it all comes down to what you want to achieve.

Ben Butcher

Hi, Nina
I was just wondering if you know if wish list or some other plug in has the following capabilities…

1. Membership (as above)
2. Monthly revenue (as above)
3. User created content (I.e. Facebook, twitter, kijiji, Craigslist, kickstarter, MySpace)
4. The ability to vote user created content up or down.