Online Courses/eLearning Membership Plugin vs LMS Plugin: Differences to Consider

Membership Plugin vs LMS Plugin: Differences to Consider

What is a Membership Plugin?

A membership site is where you offer gated content on your site. Only subscribers can access the content behind those gates.

You can create the gate with a membership plugin or a membership script. The gate allows members to log in and access the exclusive content. It creates a private, password-protected area on your site.

You can have a free or a paid membership (or both) on the same site.

You can protect virtually any type of content with a membership plugin or script.

This includes; ebooks, courses, webinars, podcasts, cheat-sheets, workbooks, quizzes, interviews, mastermind calls, important news or updates, exclusive articles, or any other type of content you’d like to protect.

Members can also often interact with each other in a community format (if you offer this within your member’s area), with you, and with other instructors.

You can charge a one-time fee or recurring monthly fee for access to your members area.

Access can also be free in exchange for an email address.

Many membership site owners schedule the member’s only content, especially those running a recurring subscription pricing model. That’s where members are charged a monthly fee in exchange for new content each month.

Others might offer content in a course format where it’s important to complete the first module, then the second, and so on. The content can even be released one week at a time to help members digest the early content first. You can also require learners to take quizzes on the material before they can start in on the next set of content.

There’s really no limit to a membership site.

How Does a Membership Site Work?

You will need to install a plugin or a script on your server. WordPress is the most popular content management system (CMS) so there are many WordPress membership plugins available.

If you want to run a membership site, you’ll need a web server or hosting plan, and the membership site plugin or software. If you’re using a WordPress membership plugin you’ll need an installation of WordPress on your hosting account. Then you’ll install the membership plugin or software onto your hosting account and configure it.

Once your membership plugin is configured properly, you can add in content and get it ready for your members.

Many membership site plugins automate the registration process, integrate with payment processors, offer an affiliate program, and more. Most are fairly robust and don’t just stop at gating the content and automating registrations.

Membership plugins work well if you’re offering an online course. Depending on your needs, you may not need a traditional online course platform or learning management system (LMS). Instead, it’s possible that a membership plugin is the best fit for you. Alternately, you may need both an LMS and a membership plugin depending on the specific solutions you choose.

What’s the Difference Between an LMS and Membership Site Plugin?

Now that I’ve introduced the term LMS, you may be wondering what an LMS is.

An LSM (which stands for learning management system) is a traditional online course platform. The content is typically structured in module to lesson format and can include quizzes, certificates, and progress tracking. Depending on the type of course you’re offering, you may not need all those features. In some cases, an unstructured course resulting from a membership plugin may be a better fit.

It’s important that you understand the difference between a membership site plugin and an LMS so you choose what’s best for you. I’ll get into that here in the next section.

Do You Need a Membership Plugin or an LMS?

In the past, membership plugins were just about the only way to sell courses online for small businesses. The learning management systems available were either so expensive or so complex, that many small businesses never considered them. Instead, they gated their content with a membership site plugin.  But now there are an abundance of LMS platforms including cloud LMS and WordPress LMS plugins.

So what’s the difference between an LMS and a membership plugin and which should you choose?

Learning Management System Features

An LMS plugin usually offer a means to gate content, but the content that’s gated will be presented in a more structured way. For example, learning management systems typically organize curriculum based on modules and lessons. An LMS may sprinkle quizzes and assessments throughout the course. You (as the administrator) may track the progress of the learner as well as monitor how they’re performing. Find out if learners complete or pass a course or if you need to change your course contents.

You can enable certificates of completion with an LMS. In addition, you can offer prerequisites where a learner has to complete a mini-course first and follow a specific pathway.

Membership Plugin Features

In contrast, with a membership plugin you don’t have all these features, but what do have is full control. The course will run on your platform, but is not confined by the restraints of a LMS. You can gate any type of content you want and organize it in any format you want. The main point is they allow for more possibilities.

A membership plugin allows you to protect whatever you want. It’s designed to protect your content and control who gets access to it.

Overlapping Features

There’s definitely overlap between LMS plugins and membership plugins.  You may be able to accomplish what you need with either one. Membership plugin plus extensions or other plugins may be able to do everything an LMS can do if you need all those features.

In some cases you may actually need both an LMS and membership site plugin. You would use the membership plugin to protect the content while the LMS provides the structure within the course.

For instance, if you already have a membership site and now you want to add a formal course to it, you may need both.

A membership plugin essentially controls access to your content.  That means you can sell subscriptions on a single level or offer more diverse membership levels. You can offer a free course and a paid course or a membership.

In addition, you can offer Bronze, Silver, and Gold memberships where the Gold subscribers get more content. This allows you to attract more people at different price points.

If you’re just going to have a single course (that doesn’t need all the bells and whistles of an LMS) with different tiers then a membership plugin is probably the right fit for you.

With an LMS you’ll get all the structure of a typical online course and you can offer several different courses.

Questions to Ask

Answering the following questions may help you determine if a membership plugin or an LMS is the best fit for you …

  • Do you need quizzes or assessments?
  • Are certificates a must-have for your course?
  • Do you need prerequisites?
  • Does your content follow a module to lesson structure?
  • Do you need progress tracking?

Most of this will not come with a membership plugin.

If you end up using a membership site plugin and you need the features listed above, you’ll need to find plugins or scripts to fill in the gaps between what you need and what the plugin offers.

Most of these features are offered with an LMS plugin. Therefore, if you need that list of features, you may want to use an LMS plugin instead of a membership plugin.

Membership Plugin vs LMS Plugin Table of Differences

Each membership plugin and LMS plugin is different. Some may offer all these features, while others offer less. This table is just a generalization of the standard features with these plugin types.

 Membership PluginLMS Plugin
Protect any type of contentSometimes
Automate registration and loginSometimes
Offer trials Sometimes
Integrate with email marketing tools Sometimes
Integrate with forumsSometimes
Offer coupons
Accept payments Sometimes
Manage subscriptions and cancellationsSometimes
Offer multiple membership levelsSometimes
Provide course structureNot typical
Offer progress trackingNot typical
Offer quizzesNot typical
Offer prerequisitesNot typical
Offer certificatesNot typical

Who Should Use a Membership Plugin?

Anyone who wants to protect content that may not need the structure of a learning management system should consider using a membership plugin.

In some cases, using a membership plugin makes more sense than using an LMS. I’ve seen recently created courses run on membership plugins instead of LMS plugins. This NCLEX test prep course is an example of a course running on a membership plugin. I’ve not enrolled in it (since I’m not a nurse), but my guess is there’s too much material for it to fit well into a typical learning management system.

Costs of Membership Site Plugins

Like every solution, membership plugins come with a range of costs. The most typical pricing structure is a one-time yearly fee. This recurring annual fee covers upgrades/updates and support. These may start at $120 a year and go up to $350 a year.

Others charge a monthly fee. With these you can see prices starting at $20/month going up to $100/month (or more).

Scripts and especially WordPress membership plugins need updated so you should expect to pay a recurring fee for a quality membership plugin. In addition, the companies developing these solutions will continue to offer support as long as you’re under a support contract, which is also part of the recurring fee.


Integrations pose a special challenge with any tool you’re using. Often, you’ll have to pay extra for them. For instance, in order to integrate with a payment processor, you may have to pay for an add-on with some of these solutions. Any integrations offered by the membership plugin provider will likely have a recurring fee for updates and support.

You’ll also need to check your integrations periodically to make sure they’re still working correctly.

Most of these software solutions can integrate with many third-party solutions. For example, if you’re already using an email marketing automation tool, then you’ll need to check on whether the membership plugin will integrate with it or not. Make a list of all the integrations you need and find the tool that can integrate with it before you commit to any membership plugin.

Examples of Membership Sites

Here are a few examples of membership sites so you can see all the possibilities.  Reflexion Yoga offers Yoga training. They have a $9/month plan to access their training materials or an annual plan where you can save a little money.

Relexion Yoga looks like it runs on MemberMouse (which is one of my top membership site plugins as shown below). You can mark off your classes as finished, save your favorites, and rate and review your classes. Much of the functionality of the course comes from additional WordPress plugins (and not MemberMouse), but they chose to use a membership site plugin to protect the content and manage registrations.

You don’t have to protect course content with a membership plugin. You can build a membership site like Backstage which helps actors and actresses looking for acting jobs. While BackStage offers advice, they also offer a job board, the ability to set up a social profile within the members’ area, and more.

Another membership site I’m sure you’ve heard of is Ancestry. They offer software and a database to build your family tree online.

The point is, you don’t just have to protect training material with a membership site solution. You can protect anything you’d like and organize it in any way you’d like.

Best Membership Site Platforms


MemberMouse membership plugin home page screenshot.

The MemberMouse WordPress plugin turns WordPress into a fully fledged membership site and membership site management system.

MemberMouse plans start at $20/month and go up to $300/month. A $60/month plan will get you most of the features and provide support for up to 10,000 members.

Businesses running their platform on MemberMouse include the Paleo Plan which is a membership site offering training on the Paleo diet, FlyOMedia which offers training how to fly airplanes, which is a dating help site, and many others.

MemberMouse Feature List

Here are just some of the MemberMouse features:

  • Sell unlimited subscriptions, memberships, and online products (including online training courses) through a password protected member’s area.
  • Manage customers, automate customer service, and allow customers to manage their own accounts.
  • Automatically lock accounts for users who share their login information.
  • Track critical retention metrics.
  • Offer 1-click upsells and downsells, split test prices, and take advantage of the gifting feature.
  • Integrate with virtually any affiliate solution and most popular payment processors (including PayPal, Stripe, and

Check out MemberMouse by signing up for their 14-day free trial.

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Amember membership plugin home page screenshot.

Amember is not specifically a WordPress plugin, instead its a PHP script you can install on your server to create a membership site, password protected area offering content, online training, or anything else.

You may use it to protect WordPress content along with content created with any other content management system, Dreamweaver, or any other type of site builder. So no matter how you’re creating your web pages, Amember can protect them.

Purchase Amember with a one-time payment (regularly $180). This entitles you to 6 months of updates and support. You can add-on more updates and support by buying an extension so compared to many options, Amember is fairly inexpensive.

Amember is used by Latina Lawyers Bar Association, the premium WordPress theme provider Anariel Design, baby and toddler sleep experts and consultants at the Baby Sleep Site, and many others.

Amember Feature List

Here are a few of Amember’s features:

  • Easy protection of folders, scripts, files, blog posts, forums, and more.
  • Unlimited membership levels for paid and free memberships.
  • Affiliate module so you can accurately track affiliate sales.
  • Integration with popular payment processors, email marketing tools, and many of the other popular tools you may be using.
  • Coupon codes, flexible sign-up forms, incremental content delivery, full WordPress integration, and more.
  • Amember staff will install the script onto your server.

Check into Amember (they offer a hosted demo and 30-day money back guarantee) and see if it’s the right membership site solution for you.

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There are many solutions on the market to help you create a course or membership site that provides a great experience for users.

Put yourself in your users shoes and figure out what features you need. From there, it’ll be a snap to figure out the best solution for you. If you’ve got any questions, please leave them in the comments section below …


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