Beginner's Guide to Building a Free Membership Site on WordPress

An illustration of a laptopThere are tons of free and paid membership software out there which can be used to build different types of solutions on a WordPress site. If you're planning to build a simple and flexible membership (no paid subscriptions) site, this guide is written just for you. You can extend the steps given below to further customize your free membership site to add more features and functions. You don't need to be an expert programmer to make such a free membership site. All we need is the capability to copy-paste the relevant code at the appropriate places. Working (basic) knowledge of HTML and CSS can definitely help you in further customizing the site as per your preferences. Make sure you implement and practice this solution on a test site before applying it on a live website. You can easily convert this setup to be a paid membership system with premium add-ons in future. So, let's get started and make a brand new WordPress-powered membership site with multiple free levels using minimal tools and simple steps.

An illustration of a laptop We'll use Simple Membership Plugin to build our site which is quite flexible and easy-to-use.

The base plugin can be further enhanced with several free and paid add-ons to build an advanced membership system. We'll use the free add-ons in this tutorial to build our membership site.

Note: I'm assuming you're already familiar with basic WordPress site maintenance tasks like installation and updates of themes and plugins.

Let's assume we want 3 different free membership levels viz., Bronze, Silver, and Gold. So, here we go to create these 3 free membership levels.

Step 1: Go to 'Pages → Add New option and create 3 blank WordPress pages for all the levels. For now, these pages will be blank. These pages will serve as a welcome page as soon as a member logs into the website.

A blank page in WordPress You can use the following slugs for these pages. You can also use your own slugs too for these pages.
You can freely edit these welcome pages to add the relevant content. It can be used to display the available content for that level in an indexed format.

Step 2: Thereafter, install the following 3 free add-ons (plugins) to enhance the functionality of our base membership plugin.

These are essential add-ons as they give enough flexibility to quickly edit and configure some of the most important settings of the membership site.

Step 3: Head on to 'WP Membership → Custom Message' option and provide your very own custom text messages you may want to display on different important pages as shown below.

Custom message plugin settings Remember, providing these custom messages is entirely optional. The default messages provided by the plugin are good enough for a basic membership site.

Step 4: Go to 'WP Membership → Settings → General Settings' as shown below and make sure the free registration option is unchecked. This ensures, the normal user registration is disabled on the website.

Disable free registration plugin setting You can enter 0 for the free membership level ID as shown above. For rest of the options, you can either leave them as it is or can make changes as per your requirements.

This page also shows you default registration and profile related pages created automatically by the plugin. If you prefer, you can create your own pages for each of the option and can replace the default pages with the new pages.

Note: On each settings page, do not forget to click the save button.

Step 5: The next important option is related to email notifications for the site administrator as well as for the new members. Go to 'WP Membership → Settings → Email Settings' option.

On this settings page, except 2 important options, you can leave the rest of the settings in their default state.

Administrator notification settings for email As shown in the image above, make sure you've activated the email notifications for every new member registration. And, also activate the option (checked at the bottom within the image) for sending a notification email to the new member whose account is created manually by the administrator from within the dashboard.

Although these notification settings are optional but activating them is highly recommended.

Step 6: Now comes the important step of creating all the required membership levels. Go to 'WP Membership → Membership Levels → Add Level' option.

You can create all the required 3 membership levels as discussed at the beginning of this tutorial from this options page.

New membership level settings page The 3 important settings to configure on this page are viz., the name of the level, duration of the membership and the page to which a member will be redirected after the successful login. You have to provide the URLs of the same welcome pages you've already created in step 1 of this guide.

Once membership levels are created, it's time to move on to the next very important step.

Step 7: It's time create the content for all the membership levels. Applying protection for different membership levels on the content is very easy through this plugin.

While creating a protected post or page, scroll down and find the following configuration section as shown below.

Content protection settings These protection settings are pretty easy to configure. All you need to do is to activate the protection along with the levels on which you want to apply it. As it is clear from the options shown above, you can make the same piece of content available on more than one membership level.

Step 8: Next step can be modified as per your preferences. We're going to embed sign up forms for each of these free levels either on a single page or on 3 different pages. If you want to go ahead with the former approach, create one page and give it an appropriate title.

And, in case if you want to go ahead with the latter approach, create three different sign-up pages and give it an appropriate title.

After page/pages have been created, go to 'WP Membership → Form Shortcode option and select the membership level from the drop-down menu to get the form shortcode for embedding the sign-up form.

Form shortcode generation settings Repeat this process for each of the membership level and grab all the form shortcodes saving them temporarily in a text file. Advanced users can directly create a shortcode form by specifying the level id within the shortcode attribute.

Step 9: Now open the relevant sign-up page you've created in step 8 and paste all or one of the form embedding shortcode as shown below.

You can, of course, add relevant text copy or other visual elements on this page as per your needs.

Form embedding through a shortcode
And this is how a typical registration form looks. Advanced users can easily modify and tweak the appearance through custom CSS code.

User registration form Once all the sign-up forms are embedded at the appropriate places, make sure you have already created all private content (posts) for each of the membership levels and have updated the welcome pages with an index to access that content. You have complete freedom to format and design the appearance of the private welcome page.

So feel free to take whatever approach you want to provide access to the private content through the welcome page.

Step 10: And last but not the least, you must provide handy login forms at the appropriate places throughout the site so that existing member base can easily login to their private account area.

For that, use the following plugin to create customized login form which can be easily embedded in any widget-ready section of your site's layout. Here's a sample login form which is shown below.

Login form in the sidebar This plugin provides several handy options to customize the login form as per your needs. It's up to you where you want to embed these login forms.

Miscellaneous Guidelines

So that completes the basic set-up of a membership site offering multiple free levels for its target audience. Following are some of the handy tips and best practices you can follow to make a robust and user-friendly membership website. Though these recommendations are not mandatory, following them can help you better maintain your membership site.

  • Always take a backup of your membership site on a regular basis to ensure you do not lose the members' database.
  • Continue tweaking the text of different notification emails to give the best sign-up experience to the new members.
  • Work on your sign up and features page to increase the conversion rate.
  • You can also soft sell various products and tools within the private account area.
  • If possible, integrate a newsletter sign up option (during the registration) to build an email list.
  • Continuously improve and expand the offered content for every level to retain existing subscribers.
  • Once you have enough free subscribers' base, start offering the paid plans too.