As you grow your web design business, adding subscription-based content to you and/or your clients’ sites is a potential revenue-generator that’s growing in popularity.
Whether you’re new to the concept of building a membership site or you’re already running one, making sure you consistently provide the best user experience is a crucial detail when putting content behind a paywall.
This certainly includes the hard work of creating a regular stream of content for subscribers to consume, but it also means presenting content in a way that’s fast and convenient—a poor user experience is the last thing someone’s going to pay for.
That said, with the right web host behind you and full confidence in things like site performance, uptime, scalability, and support, you can better focus on the creative side of your work, build more engaging content, and create a subscription-based model that works!
In this article, I will explain the importance of web hosting, specifically when it comes to subscription-based content, as well as what you should look for when choosing a host to power your membership site.
How do membership sites differ from regular websites?
At its core, a membership website allows members or subscribers to access protected content that is not visible to non-members. Protected content usually comes in the form of educational videos, webinars, online courses, documents, or forums.
In some cases, membership is maintained through a recurring monthly or annual fee, or a one-time payment for an allotted period of time.
Having both protected content and accepting payments online makes membership websites more complex in nature than simple portfolio, directory, or blog websites.
How is hosting a membership site different from hosting a regular website?
Hosting a membership site has a few important nuances you don’t necessarily have with other types of websites, including the need for added protection, performance, and bandwidth.
One of the most significant differences is that membership sites have protected pages, and these pages often shouldn’t be cached. That’s because plugins used for membership sites need to check if the user has access to a given piece of content, and if caching is enabled, this feature may not work correctly.
Besides that, hosting providers should be developer-friendly as membership websites can be media-rich (with videos and livestreams) and they may include a lot of document sharing (including PDFs, Docs, etc.), which can be tricky to protect and may require access to server configuration files like .htaccess.
What should I know about choosing a web host for a membership site?
Choosing the right hosting service can go a long way in helping a membership site be successful in both the short and long-term. That said, there are many factors to consider when looking for a host. Some of them are common to hosting regular websites, while others have a higher significance for membership websites.
Things like customer support, good uptime and speed, and a reasonable price are all important when picking a hosting company for any website. Other factors like flexible caching systems and high scalability are of higher importance for membership sites and should be considered very carefully before selecting a hosting provider.
There are also different types of hosting you should understand before we dive into the factors mentioned above. Four of the main types of hosting are: shared hosting, VPS hosting, dedicated hosting, and managed WordPress hosting.
Shared hosting is the most budget-friendly hosting option for membership websites with a minimum traffic level. The main thing to understand about shared hosting is that you will be sharing server resources with other websites. This means other websites are hosted on the same server as your website.
While shared hosting is not recommended for larger-scale membership sites that receive a significant amount of traffic (and, most importantly, concurrent users), they can be a good option if you’re just starting out and don’t have many members yet.
This option can help save money that you might invest into other activities related to growing your membership site, such as marketing or content production.
Once your membership site starts growing and you notice some decline in site performance, you may want to consider some of the other more advanced options we will explore below.
VPS hosting is similar to shared hosting in that your website is being hosted on the same server as other websites. The difference is that with VPS hosting you get a virtual space on a server which simulates a separate device.
The advantage of VPS is that you should see better performance compared to shared hosting, albeit at a slightly higher price. A good VPS solution is generally enough for medium-size membership sites that don’t have a lot of concurrent users or a lot of data stored.
VPS hosting is a good middle option between shared and dedicated hosting, with relatively solid performance at a reasonable price.
As the name suggests, dedicated hosting provides 100% percent of a server’s resources to one dedicated website. This means you don’t have to share resources with other websites, or worry about the security and performance issues that can come with shared hosting solutions.
Indeed, the main advantage of dedicated hosting is performance, which is super important to ensuring a consistently positive user experience on membership websites.
The downside is that dedicated resources are generally more expensive than shared hosting, and if you’re just starting out or have a rather small number of members, dedicated hosting is most likely not the best option.
However, as your membership site grows, you may require dedicated hosting for performance, security, or a combination of both.
Managed WordPress Hosting
Managed WordPress hosting can include any of the above options. The major difference is that with this type of host, servers are optimized to work with WordPress-built websites, and ideally, the hosting provider is able to offer additional WordPress-specific support.
This can include everything from automatic backups, and plugin maintenance to easy staging environments and caching solutions that will help your WordPress site run faster.
Of course, most if not all of the above can be accomplished using unmanaged shared or dedicated resources, but the advantage of managed WordPress hosting is that it’s configured out-of-the-box for WordPress, and doesn’t require extra work on your side.
If you’re starting your membership site and don’t have any particular technical knowledge when it comes to hosting providers and WordPress websites, my suggestion would be to consider a managed hosting provider like WP Engine or Flywheel. Find out more about your options here.
Which hosting features are important for membership sites?
Website speed and performance are crucial to any website but especially to a membership website. That’s because people usually spend more time interacting with a membership site than with a regular website or an online store, and even minor glitches or inconveniences on the user’s end can negatively affect their overall experience.
Not only that, but site speed is an important ranking factor for Google. If SEO is a part of your marketing strategy, then it’s 2x more important to have a fast website that loads quickly on any device.
A good hosting provider will have multiple datacenters in different parts of the world that will ensure your website can load fast in the U.S., Europe, Asia or Australia.
As a membership site owner, you should aim for 2-3 seconds loading time, especially for your sales pages. Any longer than that and you may start losing users. That’s why website performance should not be underestimated.
As a site owner, you may not always have a developer or an IT team at your disposal, especially when an unexpected technical problem arises on yor site. If the issue takes too long to resolve, there’s no question that it will negatively impact the user experience for your site’s members.
This is why a good 24/7 support team is important for many websites, but especially a membership site. Having used various hosting companies, I’ve experienced both good and bad customer support, and I can tell you firsthand that it’s super frustrating to wait 30 minutes for someone to even respond to you, especially when your site is experiencing critical issues!
Scalability is essential to any growing membership business and it’s hard to scale if your hosting company doesn’t have plans that match your growth. If you pick the wrong hosting company, you may need to migrate your website to a new provider as your membership website grows.
This can be a somewhat unpleasant process, particularly if you’re using the wrong hosting provider, and it can even end up breaking parts of your website. To be fair, this is not a common issue, but it shouldn’t be neglected either.
In any case, picking a scalable hosting provider will prevent you from unnecessary headaches in the future and will allow you to focus your time and energy on your business.
Server uptime essentially refers to how much time your website will be available online throughout a period of time (a year for example). While 100% is almost unreachable, great hosting companies ensure more than 99% uptime.
Experience site downtime due to technical problems on your hosting company’s end is incredibly frustrating. Not only can downtime prevent you from getting new paid members, as noted above, it will likely damage the user experience for existing ones.
This is even more important for membership sites as they tend to have higher demands on bandwidth and resources used as well as having users spend more time interacting with or using a website than a regular blog or portfolio website.
There is no need to put extra emphasis on how important website security is. Not only is your data put in jeopardy if your site is hacked, so is the private information of your customers, which is especially relevant to membership sites as they usually store more information about their users than many other types of websites. You don’t want to be known as another website that has been hacked and whose data has been stolen.
Thankfully, there are things you can do to prevent many security issues, and picking the right hosting provider is one of them. A professional hosting company will serve as the first line of defense and prevent many types of the attacks (like brute-force attacks) as well as prohibit you from using certain plugins that are known to have security issues.
Besides that, a good managed host will also provide backups for your website so that even in a scenario where your website has been hacked, you can restore it without losing much or any data at all.
Given that membership websites can get quite complex, you may need professional help from a website developer that specializes in membership sites. Unfortunately, the standard WP Admin interface doesn’t always provide enough resources for developers to fix an issue or upload a new feature to the website. Some of the most common tools that developers use and require are:
- FTP and SSH access
- Website Backups
- Staging website creation and migration
While having a hosting provider that offers all of these may be somewhat more costly, it can save you money in the long run as your developer would have to spend less time to do their work. This will subsequently result in lower charges for you as most developers price their work based on the time they’ve spent on the project.
This one might sound trivial, but it’s worth mentioning regardless. While it’s possible to buy a domain name from one hosting company and host your website with another, connecting the two often introduces additional work that can make this approach too time-consuming.
That’s why it’s usually way easier to just have one company provide your domain name and your web hosting, as connecting the two will not require any extra work from you, and it’s all set-up from the start to work as planned.
Flexible caching system
One of the most important features of good hosting for a membership site is a flexible caching system that will allow you to define which pages are supposed to be cached.
This one is super important for membership sites as some pages and URLs can’t be cached in order for the membership protection rules to work properly.
In some cases, you may need to show different types of content for a paid member vs. a non-member on the same page. A paid member may get access to a video course while a non-member may need to see a registration or a checkout form.
In most instances, caching on pages like that would have to be disabled as it may break the logic of a membership plugin.
I hope I have been able to highlight some of the main areas you’ll need to take into consideration when hosting membership sites and how they differ from regular sites. This guide should help you save some time and unnecessary mistakes that you may have otherwise made when selecting the right hosting for your membership site.