Online Courses vs Membership Sites: Which is Best for Course Creators?

Should you choose an online course vs membership site? Big question. Building a brand around your expertise is exciting. You get to showcase knowledge, skills, and experience that can lead to amazing exposure, connections, revenue, and a sense of accomplishment. It’s a worthwhile goal. But before you can experience all the great things that come with online expert status, you need to create your course and decide how you’d like to share it with the world. 

Online Courses vs Membership sites: Which is Best for Course Creators?:

Online Course vs Membership Sites: There is a Difference

Picking between an online course platform like Kajabi, Teachable, Learnworlds, and many others out there, vs a membership site, isn’t a decision made lightly. Both types of platforms offer unique benefits and address unique business goals. 

For example, an online course site is perfect for launching a new educational program. These typically offer a one-time student engagement filled with course content, quizzes, and even a community. 

Take Caleb Wojcik’s Learn Final Cut Pro X online course. It’s designed for videographers who want to improve their editing skills. The course is laid out perfectly and offered as-is. Sure, there are updates that you’ll have access to, but it’s sold as a once-off purchase. This has to do with the nature of Wojcik’s content. 

While Final Cut Pro X may be a complex tool to master, paying a membership fee for access to his course didn’t make sense to him. Instead, a one-time fee with lifetime access seemed right. This way, when students have mastered Final Cut Pro X, they need not unsubscribe or cancel their memberships. Also, should a newer version of the software become available, Wojcik has the opportunity to develop a course for it.

Creating a membership site would be ideal for an online community of people on a longer journey. Membership sites help people learn knowledge and then grow alongside a community of students. And that’s a core differentiator we’ll explore below.

Fizzle is a great example of a membership site. It’s a platform filled with tons of online courses dedicated to helping online entrepreneurs create, launch, manage, and grow successful online businesses. They have an amazing model. If you’re an online entrepreneur looking for one thorough source of entrepreneurship content, Fizzle is a one-stop-shop. 

Why does the membership site model work for Fizzle? While we’ll go into detail below, it all comes back to the nature of your student’s journey. Entrepreneurship isn’t learned in one seating or a week. It’s a life-long learning experience. Ideas and challenges you face on the road to launching an online business evolve after your brand is launched and you have paying customers. That means you need to learn more from experts on how to be the best business owner you can be. 

Unpacking Online Course Websites

So, what features make an online course website ideal for online courses? The online course platform world is filled with tons of options. You can create a standalone online course that’s branded with your domain name, or opt for a Udemy-like platform and host your course on there where millions of people can search, find, and purchase your course.

You can also purchase platforms that work with WordPress. For these, you’ll need complete manual installations, manage updates personally, and host it with your own hosting provider. While this is an option, it comes with more complexity and often a lot of headaches. 

WordPress is an amazing platform, but building an online course or membership site with it can be difficult if you don't have at least intermediate coding experience. Plugins sometimes cause design and functionality problems and can bring your site down. While themes offer customization, it can take forever to find a look and feel that you’re happy with. Also, most themes come with design limitations, meaning you’ll need coding experience to make your site look like you want it to.

While there are differences between the types of online course platforms, there is a set of core features that they offer. Here’s a breakdown of each:

Build Your Course

As you’ll be sharing your knowledge and expertise with the world, the ability to create an online course is standard. Online course platforms allow you to upload video, audio, and additional documents and files as learning resources for students. Most online course sites also come with drip content features, allowing you to open access to lessons and content according to a schedule. This can help ease students into the learning process, especially where concepts are complex and foundational, or require additional time and reading to understand before acquiring more knowledge.

Testing Tools

Because education is best assessed with testing, online course sites typically offer the ability to add quizzes, tests, and offer assignments. And this is a big deal. Testing helps address any learning challenges, course comprehension issues, and can quickly correct them. 

Build a Sale Page and Website 

Online course sites typically include a collection of site design tools. These include themes and templates that make the process of building a course website simpler. They also include sales page templates that help you quickly build high-converting sales pages, and some even offer split testing functionality. 

Marketing Tools

Marketing is a core component of launching and selling an online course. In our research into online course platforms, we’ve found that many of them offer a variety of tools. Together these help instructors plan sales and marketing campaigns and enroll more students. Typically marketing tools include built-in email functionality (including drip email marketing), the chance to offer coupons and discounts to entice enrollments, and video. Online course platforms also allow third-party integrations with amazing apps like MailChimp for email and Facebook Pages.

Analytics, Reporting and Tracking

Analytics, reporting and tracking are crucial for any online business. You need to know how your company is performing at any time, and online course sites usually include some degree of analytics. Take Kajabi, it offers a collection of powerful analytics and reports to track site visits and conversions. 

Image: Kajabi

Often, you can tell how students are consuming content. This includes how much of your course they’ve completed, when they last view material, or last logged into thier account. Analytics also extend to other areas like revenue and marketing. You can see how much you’ve made on any given day or over a certain period of time, and track email open and click rates. 

Communication Tools

While covered above, email isn’t the only form of communication available. Some platforms come with built-in messaging tools for instructors to connect directly with students. LearnWorlds offers a complete social media platform that’s built into the course platform. It encourages students to engage with each other and helps intructors build thriving communities around their courses.

Accept Payments

Getting paid is important. Online course platforms offer integrations with many payment providers and these are easy to set up. Online courses also come with payment plans, which is a helpful feature for students working on a tight budget.

Affiliate Partnerships

Affiliate partnerships make it easier to reach a larger audience of prospects and sell more of your course. Most online course platforms come with affiliate tools like page builders and tracking dashboards. Affiliates can either sign up via your custom sign-up page, or you can invite them to join your program. You can also track how many sales affiliates bring in and manage payments through your dashboard.

Student Information

Online course site platforms allow access to student data. These include names, email addresses, and any other fields you’ve gathered information for.

Membership Plans

Most course sites also offer membership plans. This works because students are able to pay for access to a course site for as long as they need it. But if you’re paying attention, you’ll note this also comes with a drawback. Learning often requires refreshers. If students choose not to pay, they lose access to course content. While the transaction is done, losing access to something you’ve paid for to learn may leave students with a sour taste in their mouths.

Unpacking Membership Sites

Membership sites are similar to online course sites in many ways. They include similar features and, in many cases, online course sites have the ability to offer membership functionality. So, what makes membership sites different? Here’s a look at typical features you get from membership site platforms and sites:

Build a Content Hub and Course

Like online course sites, membership sites allow you to upload content for members. Often, membership sites also include course builders. Most membership sites, however, are designed to be filled with many resources that members pay to access exclusively. Member access also come with perks like group discounts on products or services.

Build a Website to Promote Your Membership Site

Site building is also an important feature offered by membership site platforms. Most include templates that you can customize.

Accept Payments and Donations

Taking regular payments is possible. Membership sites, like online course sites, allow several payment gateway integrations with easy setup steps.

Event Management

Because membership sites are perk-driven and community-based by nature, the ability to create and manage events through membership sites is an important feature. You can manage registrations, issue tickets, and some platforms also allow you to create and print badges.

Workflow Automation

Automation saves time, and membership sites include some of the most convenient automations. You can automate invoices for membership renewals, events notifications, and reporting on the state of your membership business. You’re also able to offer content in drip format.

A note: course platforms also offer automations that apply to marketing functions.

Analytics, Reporting and Tracking

Membeship site analytics, reporting and tracking features are similar to those of online course sites. However, these differ depending on the functionality your membership software offers. For example, while Kajabi is an online course platform that includes membership features, it’s natively a course platform with course-related tracking functionality. 

A platform like YourMembership, on the other hand, doesn’t offer course progress tracking. It does, however, come with a collection of dashboards that track member-related data. You can see who has paid their membership fees, how your site has grown over time, and more.

Access to a Database of Members

Membership sites are community-based, and as such, databases are a critical component. You can view information associated with all members, including which plan they are on and personally identifiable data like email and physical addresses, and more.

Marketing Tools 

Membership sites typically leverage third-party integrations when it comes to marketing tools. These include email solutions like MailChimp, ConvertKit, and more. 

Communication Tools and Community

As community-based sites, membership platforms include built-in forums. Some platforms also offer complete social media tools that members can use to communicate with each other. And these tools help. Fizzle encourages community members to share their experiences through their forum, creating a safe place for entrepreneurs to learn and grow.

Which Should You Choose?

So, what should you look for when choosing between an online course and a membership site? Here’s our breakdown of important points to consider before making your choice.

Online Course Sites

An online course site is a perfect choice as an education platform if you’re in this situation:

  • You want to launch a educational course on a specific topic with a definite and short-term outcome
  • You want to bill students for a finite period (i.e. one payment or three small payments)
  • Website design and development skills are limited

Membership Sites

A membership site platforms is ideal if you’re in this situation:

  • Want to launch site that’s dedicated to community development
  • Want to create a regular income stream based on membership fees
  • Are in a niche that offers life-long learning opportunities that members can benefit form
  • You can offer perks and benefits for access to your membership site
  • Have limited website design and development skills

It’s all About Value

While we’ve shown that membership and online course sites offer unique features and benefits, we’ve also found that there are many platforms popping up that fall into a grey area. These hybrids blend some of the best features of both worlds. And while that’s great, the choice you make really depends on what you plan to take to market.

Your customers will want value for money. Creating a site that offers a course but masquarades as a membership platform with no real perks or community access will not work. Building a membership site with course content may be easier to sell, but your core service is memberships and you must commit to delivering the very best membership experience possible or you will lose members.

In closing, the choice to use an online course or membership site is as much feature and benefit related as it is about your overall goals. A course site can turn into a membership site if you offer enough value and consistently deliver amazing material and perks. Likewise, your membership site can start offering courses, but be sure that you can manage students, track their progress, and that you create truly valuable course content.

About the Author
Nadica Naceva, Head of Content at Influencer Marketing Hub, is a seasoned writer and reviewer with in-depth expertise in digital and content marketing. Leveraging her extensive experience in guiding content creation and strategic direction, Nadica brings a critical eye and analytical approach to reviewing articles and educational pieces. Her commitment to accuracy, integrity, and innovation with each review helps IMH grow as a leading source in influencer marketing. Her insights are backed by first-party data, ensuring content meets the highest standards of relevance.