Selling products or services is the basis of any serious online business and when you set out to start one, you soon face a big obstacle: what should you use, to handle all the technical stuff?
Things like collecting payments, delivering your digital products, managing customers and members, etc.
What you need is a product delivery solution. But which one is right for your business?
In this article (warning: it’s loooong), I go into detail about product delivery, talk about which solutions are good, which are bad and what you should consider for your own products and membership sites.
I’ll also give you a detailed run-down of some of the platforms I have personally had a close look at: aMember Pro, Digital Access Pass (DAP), EasyMemberPro, FusionHQ, Kajabi, Nanacast, Premium Web Cart and SiteManPro.
Read on to learn pretty much everything you need to know about product delivery and membership sites, all in one post.
You’re Doing it Wrong
From my experience in buying digital products, I’d say product delivery is done horribly wrong about 90% of the time.
More often than not, once you’ve made a purchase, all you get are a bunch of download links on a simple html page, and that’s it. Often, this page isn’t even protected in any way (meaning that anyone can access it, even if they didn’t purchase).
What’s worse is if the content is protected in a membership area, but the customer is made to jump through a dozen hoops before they can get it.
- Enter your name and email address to start the purchase.
- Enter your name, email address, payment details, etc. to make the payment.
- Enter your name and email address to sign up to my newsletter.
- Enter your name, email address and a password to create your member account.
- Go to you inbox to confirm your email address…
- Give up and go live as a hermit in India.
This is bad product delivery. Too many product creators assume that only the content matters, and not the “packaging” of that content. But the human brain does not work like that.
The packaging and the experience a customer has (which starts when they first land on your website) are very important for any business.
One of the reasons product delivery is often so badly done is because it can be quite complicated…
What to Consider for Product and Membership Solutions
Here are all the points that need to be considered and that make a good, solid delivery system:
I’m putting this first because it’s absolutely vital that you get all your customers on a mailing list. Not only is a list of customers your most valuable asset, it’s also important that you can follow-up with them for non-marketing purposes: Letting them know about new content, updates, bug-fixes etc.
All-in-one solutions seem attractive and in general, we want to avoid stringing together many different separate system. When it comes to the autoresponder however, you want to be using a third-party service. Making sure that your broadcast mailings are safely delivered to inboxes, making sure your sender address and IP aren’t added to blacklists etc. is a big and complex task and you want it to be in the hands of people who do nothing else.
A product delivery system that comes with an integrated autoresponder for some basic features (sending password reminder e-mails, for example) is good, but you definitely want a solid and seamless integration with an autoresponder like Aweber or GetResponse, for handling your actual list and e-mail marketing.
The payment processing is a similar topic to the autoresponder integration. A third party service is generally preferable, because that leaves the complexity of payment processing up to “the pros”. But it is vitally important that the payment process is integrated with your delivery system as seamlessly as possible.
For one thing, it needs to work 100% of the time. That goes without saying. Here, we’re also looking for a seamless process, without too many clicks and page-loads involved in the checkout process. Ideally, a membership site software should integrate with solutions like PayPal and 2CheckOut and also support different merchant accounts for credit card processing.
Good: the customer fills out one form to complete the payment and is automatically given access to the product/membership as well as added to the autoresponder.
Bad: the customer needs to fill out several forms and is sent to several different pages with different branding, during the purchase process.
Upsell, Downsell, Cross-Sell Management
This really comes down to the shopping cart features of any given platform. There are many ways in which upsells and downsells are handled, especially when it comes to “one-click” features (meaning the customer doesn’t have to enter the payment information and go through checkout twice to get an upsell or downsell). One-click usually works through a shopping cart system where the customer can add several items to the cart before checking out. In this case, it’s important that the shopping cart can either be integrated into your existing website or customized to match the look and feel of your website, otherwise it will visually break the flow and might cause confusion (“Am I still on the same website?”).
Upsells and downsells are a matter of redirecting the customer to specific pages, depending on their actions, and managing different products/memberships and their corresponding buy-now-buttons or order forms.
Your content delivery system should be protecting your content, so that non-customers cannot access it and it cannot simply be found via search engines. A good system should allow very easy to set up protection for all your on-page content, your downloadable content and your streaming content. At the same time, it’s very important that the protection is implemented in a way that isn’t annoying for the users. The worst example I’ve ever encountered was a setup where the system asked me to login again every single time I tried to navigate to a new page or refresh the page I was already looking at…
In short, the content protecton should be easy to set up, impenetrable to “outsiders” and as un-noticable to your paying customers as possible.
This is mainly a concern for membership sites. In most cases, you’ll want to be able to “drip out” content to your members. A good system should be flexible enough to allow for “all at once” access as well as individual, scheduled and tiered access for each member, depending on their join date and membership level. It should also be up to you whether members see none of the future content, an outline of it or all of it. Finally, it’s a nice bonus if you can set up the membership site to show “teasers” of the content to non-members and full content only to members.
Another important aspect is how a delivery system deals with cancellations: Members need to be able to access the content for at least the rest of the period they paid for (i.e. if they pay for 30 days and cancel on day five, the system should give them another 25 days of access).
An affiliate program is an extremely valuable marketing tool. If you’re selling anything online, you should strongly consider making use of it. There are two choices: either integrate with an existing affiliate network such as ClickBank, DigiResults, Commission Junction etc. or create and run an affiliate program of your own.
If you sell a range of related products, having a “global” affiliate program is recommended. With a global affiliate program, when someone refers a sale, they will also get credit for any future purchases made by that same customer, from your range of products. That makes the deal more attractive for affiliates. Another thing to keep in mind is that affiliate networks charge a “per sale” fee. If you are selling products by the thousands, having your own affiliate management system can save you a lot of money. On the other hand, affiliate networks come with a built-in trust factor and many affiliates who are already used to the platform. With your own affiliate program, you need to earn that trust yourself.
Of course, tracking needs to be bullet-proof, redirects need to be fast and stats need to be detailed. If you can offer multi-tiered affiliate payouts, that’s a great addition as well.
Ease of Use
This is one of the biggest challenges, when it comes to product delivery systems. On the one hand, you obviously want to system to be feature-rich and flexible and to do pretty much whatever you want it to do. On the other hand, the more sophisticated and complex a piece software is, the more complicated and less user-friendly it tends to be.
For non-coders, this can often mean having to spend extra cash on hiring professionals to set up and configure membership site for them. Ideally, a system should find a good compromise between flexibilty and ease of use.
Why not just use ClickBank?
In case your wondering why someone would go through the trouble of setting up a system like the ones discussed below, instead of just using something like ClickBank, here’s the short answer:
ClickBank and other affiliate networks are made for payment processing and affiliate management. Usually, these systems don’t come with any form of content protection or membership management, which means you still need to use a separate system, if you want to protect your products.
Some affiliate networks come with some basic product protection and delivery features, but these are a quick fix, if anything. If you want to deliver your products like a pro, you’ll need more than that.
"Shopping Cart" or "Membership Software"?
When you start looking at the different options available to you as a vendor, you’ll quickly notice that most of the solutions come with one of two labels: they are either “shopping carts” or “membership site software”.
What’s the difference?
Shopping carts are primarily made for ecommerce stores and while they can be used for selling digital products, they are usually not ideal for this purpose. In a shopping cart system, you generally get to set up products with images and product descriptions and assign prices to them. When the customer purchases an item, it usually takes them to a shopping-cart page, rather than straight to the checkout. Also, since ecommerce is based on shipping out physical goods, digital content protection is a non-issue and therefore not part of most shopping carts.
This is not to say that all shopping carts are automatically useless for digital product delivery. There are dozens of solutions available and they can be suitable for this purpose to varying degrees.
On the other hand, membership site software is mainly concerned with securing online content, usually with different membership levels and “content dripping”. My personal recommendation is to use membership software to deliver products, even if they are one-time paid products. I believe in offering more than just an ebook and there’s no better way of offering all your content, streaming media and download links on a nicely designed membership site.
Next, let’s get into the nitty-gritty on all the membership and product delivery platforms that I’ve personally tested and have a look at their pros and cons.
aMember Pro is a membership software that can be used for standalone products as well as for continuity programs. It’s quite a popular solution and it’s been around for a long time – chances are that you’ve gone through an aMember checkout yourself, at some point.
The Good Stuff
Its biggest strength is probably that it has a very good and built-in affiliate management system (allows global affiliate commissions across many products) and that it is, in a sense, very feature-rich and flexible. I write “in a sense” because where aMember falls short is with integration and ease of use.
The Bad Stuff
To really turn aMember into a good, seamless solution, you either need to be a programmer or hire one. Even the standard setup for a product can be quite daunting and it took me a while and several visits to the Wiki, before I figured out how to set up a simple product.
There are many plugins and integrations available for aMember. Unfortuntely, the plugins are also the source of some issues with the system
For example: at the time of testing, there is no built-in integration with Aweber, a very popular autoresponder service. In my search I found references to two different Aweber <-> aMember plugins that were at one time available, but were now nowhere to be found.
This means two things:
- The more customized your aMember is, the more potential “weak links” it has, where integration could go awry and wreck your entire setup.
- aMember is potentially much more expensive than it seems at first glance, since you’ll have to pay for plugins and quite possibly also for setup and customization.
I had an interesting discussion with Jesus Perez, a guy who specializes in local business marketing and has extensive experience with aMember. He told me of the many troubles caused by aMember “plugin monsters” when one part of the system gets and upgrade and suddenly, the plugins stop working. Then, you’re at the mercy of the third-party providers to deliver an update as quickly as possible (which they may or may not do).
The bottom line is that aMember might be a good solution for the technically well versed, but it also comes with a slew of issues that I’d rather not have to deal with.
Digital Access Pass
Digital Access Pass, or DAP, is specifically made for membership sites on WordPress. However, it’s not a plugin and that’s a very important point. DAP sits just outside of your WordPress installation and this gives it much more flexibility and power than if it were confined to being just a plugin.
The result is that DAP is the best WordPress based membership and product delivery solution I’ve seen to date.
The Good Stuff
While I wouldn’t say DAP is easy to use, I did find it less confusing than many of the other solutions here. Documentation is good and support response is fast, as well.
Digital Access Pass has an extensive feature list and gives the user an amazing amount of control over every aspect of the membership sites, content dripping, product delivery and more.
You can access all DAP features from within WordPress and since the integration is seamless, it’s very easy to create beautiful product and membership delivery with DAP: all you need is a good WordPress Theme. The login-screens, membership area, product access, user profiles and everything else is placed within your WordPress site, so you don’t have to worry about styling.
As with all self-hosted solutions, the emails with login details are sent from your server, which will inevitably cause a problem with deliverability, at higher volumes. The standard solution is fine to get started, but as soon as you reach a decent sales-volume, you’ll need a better solution. Luckily, DAP makes it easy to integrate with third-party applications that specialize in sending these kinds of transactional emails and make sure they get delivered.
The Bad Stuff
The DAP user interface looks like something made by geeks, for geeks. It’s not pretty, is what I’m saying. However, it’s not terrible, either. Thanks to detailed documentation, it won’t take long until you can find your way around the options and it’s also worth noting that usability is getting better with each update. I’d also like to see more detailed affiliate stats, but both of these points are minor.
The only real downside is that DAP is not a centralized solution. Theoretically, it’s possible to manage multiple products on multiple WP installations, all from one DAP dashboard, but this only works if all of the WP installations are on the same domain. In practical terms, if you try to manage a lot of content, many products, different membership levels etc. in DAP, things quickly become very chaotic and confusing. Even on a site with just one membership and more than one level, it can become a difficult task to make sure all the right pages are assigned to the right membership levels.
Apart from that, DAP is very difficult to fault. It’s a rock solid solution, it’s in constant development and keeps getting better. If you have just one product to sell or if you aren’t bothered with having multiple dashboards for multiple products, Digital Access Pass is the solution to use.
EasyMember Pro is a self-hosted membership platform with simple CMS as part of the package. That means you can use it to create products, memberships and all the pages (sales-pages, member pages etc.) without needing an addition 3rd-party application like WordPress.
The Good Stuff
My impression is that EasyMember Pro is meant to be used on a per-product basis. In other words, the idea is that if you sell multiple products, you set up a separate instance of EMP for each product. This is not ideal, but there’s a fairly easy workaround available. You can use the EMP WordPress plugin to manage the content and member’s areas of your various products. In EMP, you simply create the necessary membership levels and payment pages for each product and link them up to your WordPress installations. This way, you can use EMP as your central management dashboard for all products and members.
In my opinion, this beats using the built-in page builder and page manager in EMP, which is functional but very limited.
EasyMember Pro comes with a solid set of features and tools and once it’s set up, it’s quite easy to get the hang of.
The Bad Stuff
A negative aspect that EMP shares with some other solutions here (like SiteManPro and aMember) is that it leaves the impression of being a bit amateurish or chaotic. For example, I struggled with the installation because there were discrepancies between the installation process described in the documentation, the installation process shown in a tutorial video and the process I was actually looking at. Several pages in the documentation also greeted me with a “here’s where content will be added” type message instead of the expected article.
Another notable factor is that there is an autoresponder integration, but it’s unbelievably heavy handed and requires you to manually pick apart a form code and enter specific details in EasyMember Pro.
While there are some rough edges, I could find any really bad flaws in my testing of the software. Assuming you use it in conjunction with WordPress and you don’t mind the relatively limited amount of payment systems and other integrations, EasyMember Pro will serve you well.
FusionHQ is an all-in-one solution that most closely resembles Kajabi, out of all the systems presented here. It handles products, membership sites, sales-funnels, content-protection, shopping-cart and autoresponder integration,… the lot.
The Good Stuff
In FusionHQ, you start out by either creating a product or a membership site (there’s a drag-and-drop site-builder included) and then setting up a “process”. The process is basically your sales-funnel and it can be as simple or as complex as you need it to be. You can create squeeze-pages and sales-pages using a large collection of templates, graphics and a drag-and-drop editor. FusionHQ also handles upsells, downsells and exit-popups out of the box and all these can be added to your process with relative ease.
The Bad Stuff
There are two main issues with FusionHQ. The first is that it seems they have shifted their focus from “product and membership platform” to “make money easily”. Fusion now comes with businesses in a box, consisting of ready-made funnels with PLR content. I can’t help but feel this is a problem, as it shows where the development focus lies – and it’s not where serious product vendors want it to be.
The second has to do with design and styling: I’ve been a Fusion HQ member since one of their early beta releases and the design issue has never been addressed. Quite simply, the available templates are all rather ugly and look outdated. Using the FusionHQ assets and page builder, you’ll have a hard time creating pages that don’t look somewhat tacky. Personally, I’m not a good enough designer to be able to wrestle a good looking page out of Fusion and for me, that’s a deal breaker.
FusionHQ has many strong features, but unless the design issue is addressed, I can’t recommend it.
Kajabi is a hosted platform for creating and selling digital products. It also includes a CMS with which you can set up all your sales funnel pages and membership content pages.
The Good Stuff
Kajabi has, without a doubt, the best, most intuitive user interface in this roundup.
Where most systems dump you into a sea of options, buttons and drop-down menus and it takes a while to figure out how everything fits together, Kajabi is easy to use from the get go. Many users will be able to manage without needing to look at any tutorials.
Another positive highlight is the fact that Kajabi combines all the elements you need, not only to create and manage products and members, but also to create and manage squeeze pages, sales pages, launch events, membership content pages etc.
The Bad Stuff
Whether or not you like Kajabi can probably be predicted based on whether or not you like Apple products.
Much like an Apple product, Kajabi is polished, expensive and limited in functionality. You can use it to create one kind of sales page, one kind of membership site, one kind of sales funnel, in one kind of style. There are customization options, but they’re limited to visual aspects, for the most part.
If you’re a control freak and you want to customize every aspect of your products, you won’t like this.
To put it differently: If you think “I want a product delivery platform that does X, Y and Z.” then Kajabi probably won’t fit. If you think “I want to sell my info-product, but don’t know how.” then Kajabi is perfect, because it does all that for you (more or less, anyway).
Apart from that, a negative aspect of Kajabi is that it integrates with only a limited number of payment processors and affiliate programs and it doesn’t come with a built-in affiliate program. There is a custom option, which lets you integrate Kajabi with many different shopping cart solutions, given that you can do some custom coding.
Bottom line: Kajabi is a good product, as long as its limitations aren’t a deal breaker for you.
Nanacast is a hosted solution, like Kajabi and FusionHQ. Instead of having the bells and whistles out front, Nanacast has all it’s power and potential under the hood – in the form of an impressive feature array.
The Good Stuff
Nanacast has such a ridiculously huge array of features, it’s impossible to convey in an article like this one. Let it just be said that every feature related to memberships, product delivery and ecommerce that you can possibly imagine is likely to be in there, along with lots of features you never even thought of.
Integration with payment processors and autoresponders is also part of the package and for the latter Nanacast can even unsubscribe cancelled customers from your autoresponder’s customer list and move them to a different list.
They also offer state-of-the-art affiliate tracking and more stats than most of us can make use of.
You get the idea: This thing is the 800lbs features-gorilla.
The Bad Stuff
You can host all of your pages with Nanacast and have it do the entire delivery. However, unless you do some heavy html and CSS editing, it will all look rather ugly. Luckily, Nanacast also integrates with WordPress. Surprisingly, the WordPress integration is not quite as deep and complex as, well, everything else in Nanacast, but it gets the job done.
The biggest issue with Nanacast is the user interface: you will find yourself completely overwhelmed with screen after never-ending screen of options, features and custom fields. I believe that you can customize Nanacast to do anything you need, but I’ll never know for sure, because I lack the technical expertise (and the patience) to really get to the bottom of it.
Nanacast is to Kajabi what Linux is to Apple: it’s massively complex and highly customizable, but you need to be a geek to even dare go near it.
Premium Web Cart
Premium Web Cart is a shopping cart and product delivery solution… and it’s also a membership site builder and an autoresponder and helpdesk and a live chat platform and…
In short: Premium Web Cart is the “everything and the kitchen sink” solution. But that’s not necessarily a good thing.
The Good Stuff
As you can already guess, the benefits of PWC are in its sheer volume of features. Apart from the shopping cart and membership features you’d expect, it also offers:
- Affiliate management.
- A coupon system.
- A website/store builder.
- A CRM system.
- An autoresponder (not just for transactional emails).
- A live chat widget you can add to your site.
- A helpdesk/support platform.
- Survey creation and reporting.
- And more…
Theoretically, it’s nice to have all of this in one single platform and at one (relatively) affordable price.
The Bad Stuff
Unfortunately, it doesn’t hold up in practice. Is the PWC helpdesk the best helpdesk you can get? Far from it. It’s functional enough to get by with, though.
The same is true for all the other components. You can’t help but feel that you’re using a second-rate system and making compromises. The Premium Web Cart website itself is a reflection of my experience with the service: they have all these features and a large team of specialists building and maintaining all this tech, but their website looks oddly dated and a bit clunky.
To be more specific, here are two issues I encountered in my test. The first concerns the autoresponder: technically, this is a very useful system and it allows you to set up dynamic follow-up sequences, based on customer actions. This is more than most email marketing systems offer, but in practice, I doubt many people make use of it. The interface is just not user friendly at all and it took me a while to just figure out the very basics of setting up rules and sequences.
The second issue concerns the membership component: you can create a membership site right within the PWC platform, but the available templates for the site are massively unappealing, in my eyes. The CRM for the content is also less than brilliant. As a workaround, you can integrate PWC with Digital Access Pass.
Bottom line: if you are even a little bit of a perfectionist, you won’t like Premium Web Cart. If you are looking for a large collection of features, most of which qualify as “good enough”, it’s worth a look.
Also, a word of warning: I signed up for a free trial of PWC, but my credit card was charged with the full service fee anyway. A mistake, rather than malice, I’m sure. But just be aware that this can happen.
Important Note About SiteManPro:
it has been brought to my attention that SiteManPro is using a video made and narrated by me in their sales process. Please note that SiteManPro is NOT my product and I have no association with the company.
I helped them with their marketing message and a video a few years ago when we briefly considered collaborating. Unfortunately, the SMP team could not deliver what I needed and we ended the collaboration. I have asked them repeatedly to remove the video I created for them, but they are dragging their heels on the matter.
SiteManPro is based on a very important principle: business centralization.
With SMP, the idea is that you have one central dashboard from which you manage all your products, membership sites and customers, even if you have products in different niches and under different pen names.
The Good Stuff
The centralization idea is SMPs strong point. You can deliver products using your installation of SMP directly or you can connect different WordPress sites or member forums to SMP and have customers log in and access their content on the remote sites.
SiteManPro is also the only solution in the roundup that offers a built-in system for distributing and managing licenses, which is great for anyone selling software products.
A very clever feature in SiteManPro is the way it automates email subscriptions. You can connect multiple email lists from many different autoresponder services to SMP and have it act as an automation tool between them. For example, you can sign up customers to one list and move them to a different list on a different service if they cancel their membership or ask for a refund. Fully utilized, this is a feature that can add Dollars to your bottom line.
The Bad Stuff
SiteManPro has a lot of unrealized potential. Like some of the other solutions I tested, it comes off as being a bit amateurish and we encountered many small but niggling issues, in the time we used it. Unfortunately, the pace of new development and improvements is also relatively slow. I believe SMP is a solution that will only get better over time. But it’s also a solution that still needs to get better before it’s really in the top league.
Ultimately, SiteManPro is functional and useful, if far from perfect. If you are selling software and want a built-in licensing solution and you don’t mind having to do a bit of custom coding, SMP is worth a try.
No WordPress Plugins?
There are dozens of WordPress membership plugins (e.g. Wishlist), none of which I’ve included in this review. This is because I personally wouldn’t use them and I don’t recommend them, either. If your membership system is a WordPress plugin, that means that it’s confined to being just part of one single WordPress installation.
This also means that if you want to sell multiple products or manage multiple sites, there isn’t one central place from which you can manage your business and your customers. Having to log in to five different places to gather the basic stats and access your customer information is not a fun thing to do (trust me, I’ve done it). That’s why I recommend using a membership system that can govern multiple products from one location.
Infusionsoft and Ontraport
Infusionsoft and OfficeAutopilot/Ontraport need mentioning, in a roundup like this. Both of these solutions combine email marketing and marketing automation with shopping cart and product delivery features. They also both have a hefty price tag in common ($200-$300/month to get started).
I’ve tested both of these solutions and I ended up using neither of them as product delivery systems. Both solutions suffer from feature overload, which results in a very steep learning curve. There’s a whole sub-industry of Infusionsoft consultants, who (for very high prices) help out confused Infusionsoft customers.
Also, in both cases, not all parts of the system are particularly good. Infusionsoft has a decent marketing automation component and OfficeAutopilot is great for creating and optimizing follow-up campaigns. Infusionsoft’s shopping cart system is just not a very good shopping cart, though. And Office Autopilot’s membership integration with WordPress was a real headache to try and set up (back when I tested it, at least).
The point here is simply this: if you’re hoping that either of these services will be the problem to all your solutions, you’ll most likely be disappointed. I also can’t help but feel that both of these systems are somewhat over-priced, for what you actually end up getting.
Recommendations and My Personal Solution
I set out on this epic review to find the ideal membership and product delivery solution.
Unfortunately, I didn’t find it.
If you want a great solution at a very good price and you don’t mind a lack of centralization, I recommend Digital Access Pass.
If you want ease of use, you don’t want to have to install and host anything yourself and you don’t mind a somewhat limited feature set, Kajabi is worth a look.
Update for 2015
This is the section of the post where I talk about the solution I use myself and it seems this was the most popular part of the post. Since I wrote it, many things have changed, so here’s what my setup looks like, as of 2015.
For several years, I used SiteManPro for my product delivery. As stated above, it’s a promising solution, but also has its issues and we were never 100% happy with it. We’ve also spent quite some time custom coding some features into the system, to make it better meet our needs. We used DigiResults for the affiliate component, which was a good solution but is unfortunately not being developed anymore.
For Thrive Themes, we’re using a heavily modified version of MemberMouse for the membership. Unfortunately, it’s the same story as ever with this plugin: it’s good in some ways but it also had serious issues that we needed to write custom code for, to fix.
For an all-in-one solution, I’d recommend looking at Zaxaa. It’s a platform that has been developed at a rapid pace since its inception and every time I look at it, it’s better than last time. It can handle product delivery, coupons, special offers, affiliates and much more.
The bottom line is that none of these solutions are perfect, but you can’t be sitting around, waiting for something perfect to come along. Pick whichever one fits your current needs best and get to work. The sooner you can ship your imperfect product with the imperfect solution, the better off your business will be. I hope this post will give you enough insight to be able to make the right choice.
Thoughts, questions, comments? Join the discussion in the comments section!