Those are the questions many people ask when setting out to create a membership site, along with a need to understand the many differences between unmanaged standalone software and a managed service. The differences are extremely important and as such, it is worth spending a little time understanding what they are before choosing the right solution for building your membership website.
Membership software, in its unmanaged form, usually comes as a paid-for web download, which is usually installed as either a plugin for a CMS e.g. WordPress, Joomla or Drupal, or as a full solution in its own right which you would install on your server.
You will need to choose the CMS platform to use and select a reputable web host, as well as take responsibility for maintenance, backup, security and upgrades to the membership software you select.
The development of the membership software is effectively frozen in time when you make the purchase. This is fine until you need to upgrade. Usually, the software company will charge additional money for upgrades and leave you to implement the changes, so that they are not responsible for any problems, system conflicts or lost data.
If you have reasonable technical skills this process is usually not a problem. However, if you have no or limited technical skills you should not tackle upgrades yourself. This does mean however paying for a developer to upgrade the software for you.
The big advantage of buying your own membership software is that you ‘own’ a full working copy of the software, so if anything happens to the company that created it, for example, they go bankrupt, your site will continue to run. In the medium term, you would still have to look for an alternative solution because there would be no one to provide upgrades or support.
For more details about membership software please read The Membership Software Guide.
Managed Membership Site Service
The alternative to using unmanaged membership software is to use a fully managed membership website service or platform. This is where a company undertakes to provide their customers with a fully operational web-based membership service, using hosted, managed and supported membership software, ready for the publisher to use.
Many people use managed services without even realizing they are doing it. For example, services such as Hotmail, Gmail, eBay and iTunes are all managed services.
When you sign up for a managed membership site service you are usually given a user id and a password. You can login through a normal web browser and immediately start building and managing your membership website. There are no downloads and no installation or upgrade issues.
The big advantage with a managed service is that the company providing it takes care of all the boring (but vital!) technical issues such as hosting, security, design integration, payment processing integration, bandwidth provision, daily monitoring and upgrades.
For non-technical people, this is a dream come true! When you use eBay, you don’t want to worry about what version of the software they are using!
It leaves the publisher (you) to focus on creating content and looking after their customers.
The downside is if the company providing the service runs into trouble, you could lose your website.
Therefore you must research and choose an established and reputable company, with a large client-base, such as the SubHub Membership Site Service.
How do Prices Compare Between Membership Software and a Managed Membership Site Service?
This question is a bit like how long is a piece of string. However, in general membership software tends to be an expensive upfront cost and then requires irregular lump sum payments over the life of the software, to pay for upgrades and support.
Managed membership website services tend to be less of upfront investment and then require fixed monthly management fees to pay for the hosting, upgrades, maintenance, etc. On a like-for-like basis, there may be little difference in the costs, but there is a big difference in the amount of work that you will be required to undertake! Also for new businesses, a managed service enables you to spread the payment out over the year, whereas membership software is fully paid for upfront when cash is tight.
Highly technical people may feel more comfortable with owning a membership software license and being in control of the administration and maintenance of their membership website. They may prefer buying an unmanaged membership website software package.
Non-technical people should go for the managed membership site service, so that they can leave the technical and maintenance issues in the hands of the experts.