Membership Site vs Online Course: Which One is Better?

If you have already had some experience with online marketing, you must have heard about online courses and membership sites. They both are one of the most popular ways of monetizing your expertise online.

Even though both the membership site and online course are digital products and are similar in a few ways, they are two very different business models. Both digital products require you to take different approaches to content creation, revenue generation, and community building.

Before picking up one of these digital models for your online business, you must understand the actual difference between these two digital products so that you know what you’re getting into.

Let’s hop in!

What is a Membership Site?

Membership sites are also known as subscription sites and they are a great way to generate steady revenue for your business from the very first day. Usually, a membership site will include most or all of the features mentioned below:

  1. No set endpoint: Your membership continues forever until you decide to cancel it.
  2. Access is temporarily granted for payment: For example, you might pay an annual or monthly fee to be part of a site.
  3. Regular content: The membership site is usually not a static source. It’s continually updated with the latest information on the topics, & new content is regularly released on a membership site.

A membership site may contain heaps of the entire course behind the paywall as one of the benefits of joining.

WordPress membership site

Most of the membership sites will allow you to join at any time & work through their material at your own pace. Although as of recently, there has been an increase in courses that close membership & only allow people to join during a specific time frame each year.

This is mostly used to create an atmosphere of urgency for signing up & to give the site more exclusivity, but it can also be a way to work through a program with a specific group of students all at the same time.

What is an Online Course?

Online Courses are goal oriented, which means there is a clear beginning and ending to the course with a specific end goal. Usually, an online course will include most or all of the features mentioned below:

  1. One time fee: Normally, you need to pay only once for an online course, and you get lifetime access to all of the content. There’s no annual pay or fee to keep access to the information.
  2. More structured: An online course is broken down into lessons & modules & there’s a certain way you’re intended to work through the information. Typically, there’s an introduction laying out the steps you need to take from beginning to end.
  3. The way content is released: Online courses may make all content available at the start. Or in some cases, content is released in parts, such as one module per day or week.
  4. Progress tracking: It’s the ability to see how much of the course you have completed so far & automatically opening the course from where you last left off.
  5. Quizzes and assignments: Students often get assignments and quizzes in online courses so that their learning ability can be tested. The online tests may be graded, or they might just be used by the student independently.
    There’s an alternative to quizzes as well – which are called “action steps,” in which a student is asked to go out and apply what they have learned to real life in some way.

online courses

Some courses can be started at any time, such as evergreen or self-study courses. Simultaneously, other online courses will have a fixed start date so that all students are working through the material together.

Pros & Cons of Online Courses vs Membership Sites

Both online courses and membership sites are based around paying for access to exclusive content – the major difference between these two digital models is the nature of the content itself & how access to the content is controlled. Here are some pros and cons of these two digital products.

Pros of an Online Course when Compared to a Membership Site

  • Creating an online course needs much less commitment than a membership site. With online courses’ availability, you don’t need to commit to creating content & engaging your students on an ongoing basis.
  • Almost all online courses have a fixed structure & so, creating and planning the content is relatively easy.
  • Online courses are much more result-oriented as they give students a clear path to achieve a specific goal.
  • One can create an online course even if he is a novice. But creating a membership site requires authority & you need to be a real expert to create one.
  • With the help of online courses, you can even charge a premium price. Also, you get paid upfront, so you don’t need to think much about member retention.

Pros of a Membership Site when Compared to an Online Course

  • A membership site helps you build a recurring and stable revenue stream for your online business, while in online courses, the revenue is more sporadic.
  • Membership sites are more flexible in terms of content creation. Unlike online courses, you can even start your membership site with very minimal content & you can add more content to your site as you move forward.
  • Membership is a much more convenient way of creating loyal followers for your business & genuinely speaking; there can be no more significant asset for your business than loyal fans.
  • Membership sites are more affordable as the students don’t need to make a large upfront payment.
  • If done properly, memberships can create a much more significant impact on the lives of your members.

Who Should Create Membership Sites vs Online Courses?

While both of these models are very popular, they might not be the right choice for everyone. The right choice for your business depends on your audience, level of commitment, expertise, and end goal.

An online course will be better for you if:

  • You’re just getting started & you don’t have much experience with online marketing & content creation.
  • When you’re teaching a particular topic where it is hard to create content on an ongoing basis.
  • You want to start a side hustle and then commit to it full time.

A membership site will be better for you if:

  • You are willing to commit to providing value to all your members on an ongoing basis.
  • When you want to add a recurring revenue source to your business.
  • Your niche is so vast that you can create an unlimited amount of content.
  • You have poor experience of selling digital products.
  • You are willing to invest time & effort in building a strong community for your membership.

Why Use LearnDash with a Membership Plugin?

WordPress Learndash

LearnDash is a Learning Management System (LMS) plugin for WordPress that allows course creators to manage and create online courses. With the help of LMS, you can manage the learning process inside of your site.

There’s a lot of things that LearnDash offers you to do with your membership site or online course. You can easily create individual courses with lessons & topics grouped in a particular order. You can also add assignments or multiple-choice quizzes that people can submit.

You can also force your students to go through the lessons or courses in a particular order & can control their lesson progression. This means they have to complete the lessons sequentially or complete the courses in a specific manner before moving onto the next step. Students can even track their progress by seeing where they last left off in their training.

There are also many other things you can do to gamify your website’s learning experience, like awarding points to students for completing steps or awarding certificates once a course or series of courses is completed. These are just some hints of  the things that LearnDash allows you to do.

Let’s say you are operating in a corporate environment and need advanced accountability features like SCORM or xAPI for your curriculum; then, you can utilize the LearnDash integration feature.


Both membership sites & online courses are excellent options to make money online. You have to select the right model & then commit yourself to make it work for you and your students.

However, it doesn’t mean that you can’t provide both types of digital products. Many creators worldwide offer a premium course as their front-end offer & then a membership site to their course students in the backend.

And it makes sense, too, because both the digital models complement each other quite well. But it’s recommended that you go this route only when you have prior experience selling digital products.

We hope that this article will help you decide between online course and membership site models. Which digital model do you think will be better for your business, and why? You can let us know in the comment section below.