How To Build A Premium Content Site Using WordPress

From magazines and newspapers to bloggers, virtually every publisher aspires to make money from their content.

Creating a premium content site using WordPress is actually relatively straight-forward but there’s a lot to consider before you start building your site.

In this article we’ll look at how to approach creating and maintaining a premium content site and look at several potential technical implementations.

Subscriptions are now a common sight on the world's major publisher's websites
Subscriptions are now a common sight on the world’s major publisher’s websites

Before you can select the most appropriate solution for your premium content site you need to determine your requirements. That means putting together at least a basic checklist that you can use to assess potential solutions.

Subscription or Membership?

This might seem a little like splitting hairs but is the first fork in the road when it comes to selecting a solution because subscriptions and memberships are not the same thing.

A subscription is paying in advance for a service or product. There’s an implicit acknowledgement, I think, that the service or product is the primary or perhaps only component of the subscription and there is little to no interaction between subscriber and provider.

With a membership, the expectation is different. Membership often consists of a combination of products and services as well as the idea that a membership provides access to a community – indeed, it may be that the access alone is a selling point, particularly if the model has exclusivity built into it.

Take this site for example. We sell “memberships” because our view is one of our customers joining a community. Now that may sound cheesy but if you jump into our Support area you’ll find help is being provided by both our Support team and other members. Add in access to plugins, themes and videos and this is obviously not the standard notion of a subscription.

Many of the potential WordPress solutions use the term subscription and membership interchangeably but for most users they have a distinct meaning and therefore a defined expectation. Making sure you meet that expectation with the right product is vital.

For the purposes of this article, the assumption is that the model of choice is the subscriber model. We’ll take a look at membership model solutions in a later article.

To determine whether you are selling subscriptions or memberships, ask yourself:

  • Am I just selling access to content?
  • Am I providing a combination of products and services?
  • Am I building a community rather than just a subscriber base?
  • Is access to that community part of the value proposition?
  • Am I creating exclusivity by limiting member numbers?

Why Your Site And Where’s Your Audience?

Photo of empty theater seats
Build it and they will come? The internet is not a place for sentimentality.

The adage “build it and they will come” might sound good but as realists we know that’s not how it works online.

Answering the question of why will users sign-up to your site is the most important question on your checklist and it needs a brutally honest answer.

There is no right or wrong answer but clearly your site needs to be unique: write your answer down so you are clear about what it is you are offering.

The almost as important secondary question is: where is your audience? Hopefully, you are in one or more of the following situations:

  • You already have an site with an active audience that you want to monetize.
  • You are converting a paper publication (and its subscribers) to online.
  • You are active in a member-network that doesn’t have an online presence.
  • You are leveraging an existing community (offline or online) by partnering.
  • You have an extensive social network (plenty of connections on Google+, Facebook and Twitter).

In other words, you have access to an existing audience that you can immediately engage with. If you don’t then you are probably worrying about how to run before you have even started walking and you need to concentrate on realising one of the above situations first.

Are You Building An Audience or Subscriber-base?

Let’s get specific over definitions again. An audience is the group of users that a site interacts with on a regular basis; a subscriber-base consists of those members of the audience that have bought a subscription. The latter will always be smaller than the former.

Obviously, the aim of any subscription-based model is to have as many subscribers as possible but one of the key decisions you need to make up front is just where is your focus.

For many sites, the focus is on audience. This site for example uses the blog to build as big an audience as possible to sell products to. The blog is the start of the most common conversion model that works on the premise that the more interaction with an audience member, the more opportunities arise to build trust and push the value proposition and the more likely they are to convert.

To build an audience, though, you need to be prepared to give content away in some form. As we’ll see later, there are various ways of doing this without removing all value but this is a slow-burn and requires patience. For this approach, converting visitors into returning visitors is the primary aim.

The alternative is to concentrate solely on your instant conversion of visitors to subscribers. This is far more difficult and will require careful crafting of a landing page and highly persuasive copy as you may only get one shot at that conversion.

Potential Negative Impacts Of Premium Content On SEO

In the rush to become online media barons it’s easy to forget that premium sites can neuter a potentially key audience (and therefore subscriber) building tools: Google.

Putting a registration form between the user and a site’s content puts the same registration form between Google and the content (at least it should, more on this later) making it difficult for the content to be indexed. If the content isn’t indexed then it isn’t going to be found in search.

The consideration here, then, is how important is Google to your growth plans? If it’s anything other than “not at all” then you need to think about how you intend to get your content indexed and yet at the same time retain its value.

Cloaking, The Quickest Path To Google Oblivion

The obvious answer to the SEO and Premium Content conundrum is simply to detect when the request is being made by the Googlebot and show it the full content. Unfortunately, whilst it’s fairly easy to implement, it’s also the quickest way to become persona non grata with the dominant search engine.

Google expects its search bot to see exactly the same content as any other user would. If it doesn’t then it considers the site to be engaging in cloaking and cloaking is against Google’s rules of engagement.

Here’s a video of Google’s Matt Cutts explaining the ins and outs of cloaking.

Of course, you could argue that you are treating Google as a subscriber but it’s more than likely that you’ll be arguing this after your site has been penalized.And whilst it may be tempting to take the risk, the consequences could be dire. It’s also useful to remember what Cutts repeated on several occasions: there are no white-hat SEO techniques.

First Click Free

This is a technique that was suggested some time ago by Google as a viable alternative to allow indexing of premium content.

In exchange for allowing the Googlebot to crawl your premium content, you must show the full content to any user that clicks through from a Google search result page. If it is a multi-page article, they must be able to view the entire article. Any subsequent clicks to other pages can be protected.

This seems like a reasonable solution however it is hardly foolproof. If someone desperately wanted to view all your premium content then they could simply alter the User Agent string and impersonate the Googlebot.

It also seems to be pretty much under everyone’s radar. The original post explaining First Click Free was published in October 2008 and only had 55 comments when comments were closed a year ago.

Support for the approach is also rare.

Snippets, Icebergs and Metered Models

Photo of iceberg
The Iceberg model is one method for keeping Google and paid subscribers happy

So, if implementing First Click Free is going to be difficult and we want to avoid getting penalized for cloaking, what alternatives are there?

The first option is to simply use a snippet to provide a “grab” for the article – you may already do this by using the Excerpt field. When Google comes crawling, it will find the snippet and at least have something to index. How effective this is will depend entirely on how well you write the copy.

This is the easiest option (you should be creating those snippets anyway) but provides the minimal content for Google.

The second option is to use the Iceberg model, so called because most of an iceberg is below the surface and therefore not visible but what is above the surface looks like an iceberg. You can do the same with your content by providing non-subscribers, including the Googlebot, with a synopsis of the article and reserve the full article for subscribers. Weightier than a snippet, this provides even more content for Google to sink its teeth into.

Better than the snippet option but obviously more resource intensive as it effectively requires the writing of two versions of each post. Probably best suited to sites that only publish a few times a week.

The third option is to go metered. This model gives visitors a certain number of free articles per month after which they need to subscribe. This is very close to the First Click Free approach except that the metered model generally does not worry about how the visitor got to the site. As well as allowing your content to be indexed, the other huge advantage of a metered model is that it facilitates social sharing.

This option is all about weighing up the pros and cons: no additional resources, indexing of full content, social sharing versus, audience building tool giving away a proportion of content. If your site is going to publish more than daily then the trade-off is probably worth it.

Freemium v Premium, Where’s Your Split?

As WordPress users, we are all very familiar with the freemium model as it is endemic in the plugin and theme markets. Freemium works for content too: you’ve just got to decide what’s free and what’s premium.

Bear in mind that freemium works on the basis of giving something away in exchange for further opportunity to convert the user into a subscriber. It’s primarily about building an audience and whether you need to use freemium at all will depend on how important audience building is to your project.

I’d argue that virtually all subscriber sites need to be freemium to some degree to at least allow the visitor to sample the product or service. Membership sites are different in that often access to the community or perhaps to the community owner (an expert in a particular domain) is the key driver.

If you are thinking of going with the metered model then you are freemium by default and all you actually have to worry about is how many free items of content to give away (I say items of content because some solutions allow metering to include other content types such as forum posts). You need to make it high enough that the visitor keeps coming back – more contact, more chance of conversion to a subscriber – but not too high that the incentive to convert diminishes.

There is no magic formula and is perhaps something that you’ll need to tweak. As a rough rule of thumb, though, a week’s worth of posts per month is reasonable. If you have an active forum and you are including this in the meter then you might need to take into account the forum activity as well.

If you are not metered then you are going to need to plan in advance what you give away and how you do it. The key criteria of the free content, though, is that it must be representative of the premium content. Just giving away low-quality content is saying “if you want the good stuff, you need to take a gamble and pay for it”; providing high-quality free content is telling your audience “there’s plenty more just like this”.

Designing Subscription Plans

Screenshot of the Australian's subscription plans
Be clear about what each subscription plan delivers

You’ve decided that you are a subscriber site, you’ve also decided on your model and where the freemium / premium boundary is. Now, you’ve got to build your subscription plans.

You need to consider:

  1. Free Trials – are you going to provide limited time access to all your premium content and, if so, how long for? Not a requirement for metered model sites.
  2. Recurring v One-off – you really want all transactions to be recurring (auto-renewing) but this will potentially increase your management workload handling unintended renewals.
  3. Monthly v Yearly – do you try to take smaller amounts more often or bank a year’s subscription? The prudent approach is to offer both and let the data decide.
  4. Hierarchies and Levels – is there just one plan or multiple levels? Multiple plans are often better for conversion but does your content lend itself easily to tiering? If it doesn’t and it looks forced then users may well baulk at the point of conversion.

Finally, Here’s some old but still highly relevant advice from Smashing Magazine about building your subscription page.

Picking A Hosting Provider

Premium sites are by default commercial enterprises, so don’t skimp on the services and products that are supporting it.

This is particularly important for your hosting arrangement. Availability is everything: if your site is unavailable for whatever reason, you cannot convert new subscribers and you cannot service existing subscribers.

Think about where your time is best spent. Likely, it is not managing the hosting environment.

Pick a managed WordPress solution

Let someone else take care of managing your WordPress environment. There are several excellent options out there, including WP Engine, Pagely, Synthesis and Pressable.

This is potentially the most important relationship you’ll build, so make sure there’s a real person and, preferably, the same person or group of people at the end of the telephone or live chat when you need to resolve an issue.

Start with the best solution you can afford

Hopefully, you’ve put together a budget and you know what you can afford when it comes to hosting. Spend the budget. Get the best solution you can because really no matter how good your business plan, your growth forecasts are just finger in the air and you don’t want the joy of spectacularly underestimating your traffic to be cut short by your site not being able to handle the demand.

Make sure the solution scales

Even though you’ve picked the best plan you can afford, you also need to make sure that the solution you have is scalable. If your resource requirement exceeds your plan can you simply upgrade, without any downtime?

Picking Or Creating The Perfect Theme

Screenshot of The Magazine's home page.
The Magazine proves that premium content doesn’t need a snazzy theme

Themes. I’d wager that more time is spent picking a theme (or developing one) than on any other aspect of building a WordPress site, including, lamentably, creating the content.

So, write this down now somewhere conspicuous:

“Look and feel is important but content is critical.”

Of course we all want our sites to look great but the fact is for premium content sites, it is the content that sells the subscription. For that reason alone, I would recommend going for the simplest theme you think you can get away with to really let your content take center-stage.

For a great example of simple, perhaps even bland, design that puts the focus firmly on the content (and actually uses a tablet design across all devices) have a look at The Magazine.

You also want to:

  • Thoroughly test how the theme operates on tablets and mobiles – if it’s not great, then ditch it, as these devices are just too important
  • Make sure every page operates as a landing page (read more about this)
  • Clearly delineate content between visitors and subscribers – don’t show conversion content to the converted

Putting It All Together

If only it were this simple
Putting it all together is not as simple as it initially seems

Hopefully, if you’ve made this far, you’ll realize that the perfect solution is entirely dependent on how you answered all the previous questions as they all are designed for a particular scenario.

Solutions come in all different shapes and sizes and there are plenty of paywall-type services out there that can integrate with your premium content site. However, relying on a third-party service for what is an essential service is fraught with risk (if the paywall service is down, how do subscribers access the site?) and so I’ve concentrated on those solutions that add the functionality to WordPress directly.

It’s also important to remember that the plugins that provide the premium content functionality need to be complimented with a whole host of other plugins that provide essential complimentary services and functionality for your premium site solution.

And just like the hosting environment, this is not an area to skimp on. Yes, there may well be free alternatives to the plugins listed here but more than anything you are paying for support. The last thing you want when you’ve got an issue with your site is having to use the WordPress.org forums to get a solution.

We’ll look at the essential plugins later, but first some premium content solutions.

Remember, these are only solutions that are focussed on premium content, not a membership site.

  • Leaky Paywall from IssueM

    if you are keen on the metered model then IssueM is the solution. Along with the model’s social sharing and SEO benefits, Leaky Paywall also:

    • allows the setting of the free article limit and the timeframe
    • shows an article countdown nag to visitors
    • supports PayPal (standard) and Stripe payment gateways
    • allows bulk access via IP address exclusion
    • supports multiple subscription options
    • provides subscriber management
    • restricts PDFs to paid subscriber access only

    Cost: $97 (single site)

    Interested in Leaky Paywall from IssueM?

  • Premium Subscribers from DigLabs

    This is actually an add-on to DigLabs Stripe plugin, which is a little odd, but nonetheless this looks like a full featured traditional model subscription solution.

    DigLabs limits access to premium content to subscribers and supports:

    • unlimited subscription levels
    • protection of posts and pages
    • full control of premium message
    • payment via Stripe gateway
    • post / page metabox to assign subscription level to content
    • login and subscription detail widgets
    • subscriber management

    A comprehensive looking solution but is restricted to the Stripe payment gateway.

    Cost: $25 + $35 for Stripe plugin.

    Interested in Premium Subscribers from DigLabs?

  • Restrict Content Pro by Pippin's Plugins

    This plugin by WordPress developer stalwart Pipping Williamson describes itself as “a complete membership and premium content manager for WordPress”.

    In reality it is a subscription product and a very good one at that.

    Restrict Content Pro supports:

    • an unlimited number of subscription, including free and trial
    • restrict entire post or just section
    • comprehensive subscriber management (probably the best of the three)
    • PayPal (standard) payment gateway
    • discount codes
    • reports on earnings and sign-ups
    • data export

    Add-ons extend the plugin’s capabilities providing support, for example, for PayPal Pro/ Express and Stripe gateways, CSV user import, integration with Easy Digital Downloads, affiliates, integration with Campaign Monitor.

    An impressive solution with a ton of extensions.

    Cost: $42 (single site), $155 (unlimited sites + extensions).

    Interested in Restrict Content Pro by Pippin's Plugins?

The Essential Plugins and Services

Building a premium content site is a lot more than just creating content and then restricting access by installing and configuring a plugin. Here’s just a few of the additional plugins and services you’ll need to look at:

MailChimp for Email Marketing

Email marketing is going to be critical to the success of your premium site. Those regular newsletters to your audience and subscribers will be a major contributor to growing the subscriber base.

One of the rare areas of consensus in the WordPress community is that you shouldn’t use WordPress for any heavy-duty email marketing and you really should be entrusting your site’s reputation to a dedicated service such as MailChimp.

Integration with MailChimp can be at various levels but the more you offload to MailChimp the better.

Mandrill for SMTP Email

If your subscriber-base gets large enough then you’ll soon discover that your site is sending out plenty of emails, especially if your premium content plugin handles reminders for expiring subscriptions. Again, this is all load on your hosting environment and a potential risk to your site’s reputation.

Using an alternative transactional email service such as Mandrill (from MailChimp) removes that load and ensures that all your email is not only handled proficiently but can also be tracked.

Akismet for Comment Spam

Spam is the bane of any site owner and anything that relieve the pain of dealing with it has got to be worthwhile installing.

Akismet, from WordPress creator Automattic, is the gold standard in spam protection for a WordPress site and is only $5 per month for a commercial site. To date, Akismet has trapped over 1.8m spam comments on this site alone.

Ultimate Branding for White-labelling

With a premium site, it’s essential to keep branding consistent and WordPress has a nasty habit of popping up with its logo when you least want it.

This star of the WPMU DEV stable will keep your branding front and center by helping you remove all references to WordPress.

WP Email Login for easier logging in

This simple plugin will save you and your subscribers countless hours by letting them use their email address as their username.

Google Analytics

As a premium content site owner, Google Analytics will be your most frequently visited site other than your own as you analyze the success (or otherwise) of your site, the decisions you’ve made and the content you are creating.

Google Analytics+ from WPMU DEV plugin allows you to easily add GSA tracking to your site and puts essential data in your WordPress Admin Dashboard. As a bonus, it’s also multisite compatible.

Restrict Widgets

As mentioned above, it’s important to ensure that content for subscribers is not shown to visitors and vice versa and this extends to the widget areas of your site, especially those messages encouraging the purchase of a subscription.

The Restrict Widgets plugin allows complete control over sidebars and widgets providing conditional display of both based on a users role, the content type and the page type.

Infinite SEO

This premium plugin handles sitemaps, title and meta data otpimization, sitewide linking, integration with Moz and is compatible with multisite and BuddyPress.

Floating Social

Another WPMU DEV plugin, Floating Social makes it easy for your visitors to share your content on their favorite social platforms. It’s style is customizable, works with virtually any layout and is responsive.

You’re probably looking at a demo of it, right now.

Backing Up

Despite the best attempts at prevention, disasters do happen and you need to be able to recover as quickly as possible to minimize downtime for your paying subscribers.

Whilst a general discussion about disaster recovery is beyond the scope of this article, you do need to ensure that your site’s essential files and data are being backed-up.

It is quite possible that your host is doing this for you, especially if you are with a managed WordPress host. WPEngine, for example, prefers that backup plugins are not used in its environment (they say it’s simply duplicating what they do already) although they do recommend and permit VaultPress (from $55/yr), from WordPress which is available via the JetPack plugin.

It’s clearly going to be worth contacting your hosting provider before selecting a product. vaultpress

If you are DIY hosting then VaultPress is also an option, as is Snapshot from WPMU DEV. Best practice, no matter which plugin you go with, is to back-up “offsite”, that is to Amazon S3, Google Drive or DropBox.

Plan, Plan And Plan Again

As you can see, starting a premium content site is not just a matter of whack up a WordPress site, adds some content, install a premium content plugin and sit back and watch the cash roll in.

Far from it.

Hopefully, there’s at least three things that you’ll take away from this article:

  1. There is a significant amount of planning that has to be done before you even start looking for the technical solution.
  2. There is no “best premium content plugin” because the best solution is entirely dependent on the choices you made during that planning stage.
  3. It’s your content that will make or break the project, not the solution.

It’s easy to get caught up in the technicalities of building these sites but if you are embarking on a premium content site, you need to make sure that you get the planning right.

Because the more time you spend planning, the less time you’ll spend building.

Have you built a premium content site? What tools did you use and what advice would you have for those starting out?

Picture credits: Seats, Iceberg, Instructions,