When it comes to delivering your content online, you have two main choices – membership sites and online courses. 

So how do you choose between the two? Both have their own benefits, but you may find more success with one over the other.

While there isn’t a perfect answer, taking a look at the pros and cons of both will make the choice much easier. Either way, eager students are ready to learn from your wisdom.

What Are Membership Sites?

First things first, you need to know what makes membership sites and online courses different. MemberPress provides a great definition of a membership site – a gated part of your site that offers exclusive content to members. You’re able to offer whatever content you want behind the gate.

People sign up and they gain access to online courses (yes, online courses can be a part of a membership site), members-only articles and blog posts, special webinars and forums and communities. You can get as advanced as you want and have tiered memberships or offer content on a regular basis, such as a new part of your course every week. You have a lot of flexibility with membership sites.

What Are Online Courses?

Online courses are basically classes offered online. Obviously, it’s a tad more complex than that, but that’s a basic definition. U.S. News explains online courses as having four main components:

  • A learning management system where students access course materials
  • The actual course materials which vary based on the course
  • Any assignments and projects
  • Grading

As you can see, online courses are a little more closed than membership sites. Each course focuses on a highly specific topic and provides only the materials necessary for students to successfully learn the topic. Some online courses also include forums and communities for students to interact with each other. 

Membership Site Pros

One of the most noticeable benefits of membership sites is they have the potential to continue indefinitely. An online course has a set end, but these sites allow you to continue uploading new content. This creates an on-going opportunity to interact with students and also a regular income stream if you’re billing students monthly or yearly.

Some other pros you’ll enjoy include:

  • Tons of flexibility (different membership levels, content delivery schedule and more)
  • Ability to add more than just course materials
  • Interact with students for longer
  • Create growing communities
  • Develop a site once and continue adding to it
  • Plenty of WordPress plugins and themes make setup slightly easier

Think of membership sites as a long-term education option. You have to be in it for the long haul and not just a once off course.

Membership Site Cons

As wonderful as all that sounds, it’s not all rainbows and sunshine. Membership sites take a ton of hard work and it can take a while before it starts to pay off. Marketing early on and throughout is definitely important if you want to be successful with this course model. Some cons that help balance the pros include:

  • More maintenance and a longer setup than online courses
  • It’s almost always better to host your own membership site
  • You need a ton of content to succeed (even before the initial site launch)
  • You have to continue creating content if you want students to keep paying
  • It’s a time-consuming option

If this is a full-time business for you, those cons probably won’t faze you at all. In fact, membership sites are often an option for people who want to teach online full-time.

Online Course Pros

Now that you’ve seen the good and the bad with membership sites, it’s time to do the same with online courses. Overall, online courses are the simpler of the two options. It’s a great idea to start with a single online course to get your feet wet before considering a big membership site. 

Some nice pros to online courses include:

  • Create content once and you’re done (you can update material if you want)
  • Sell the same content repeatedly (works as passive income)
  • Offer multiple types of course material (video, text, audio, etc.)
  • Host yourself or on a course marketplace (less setup time with a marketplace)
  • Limited amount of content to create means you get to market faster

As you can see, it’s similar to a membership site, but think of it as a dramatically slimmed down version.

Online Course Cons

Online courses have their cons too. Much of the cons depends on how you choose to host your course. So first, take a look at self-hosted online course cons:

  • Initial costs for setup and ongoing maintenance costs
  • Lengthy setup time or you can hire someone to do it for you
  • More time spent on marketing

If you don’t host it yourself, other cons include:

  • Limited flexibility depending on the platform you choose
  • Commission costs from the platform you choose
  • Grading students (may not apply to membership sites)
  • Some marketing, but this may mostly be done by the marketplace

Either way, you still need to market your course some. However, if you host it yourself, you get more flexibility, but you’ll spend more time and money initially to get started. Many people choose to go with a third party marketplace to start with to see how well students respond to their content. If they’re successful, they might choose to go out on their own and start a website with multiple online courses.

The Final Verdict

If you expected a winner here, you’re going to be disappointed. Sorry, but membership sites and online courses are both equally awesome. The key is figuring out how much content you want to create, how much time you have to maintain a site and what your students want. 

If you just want to create single courses, then go with online courses. If you want to go beyond courses, membership sites could be the best option. Not sure where to start? Talk to potential students to see which option they’d be most interested in. You should also look at how much content you could possibly create around a subject. Both will help you figure out which route to take.

Want to learn even more about turning your knowledge into a profitable online course? Start with my free five lesson course today.

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