S2Member is one of the most established membership plugins for WordPress, having been around for many, many years. This works both in its favour and against it in some respects. It’s a very flexible plugin that does so much right and could be the complete solution for many website owners. It is also complicated and not always user-friendly which will frustrate some users.
Despite the potential complication, if you’re looking at setting up a membership website, eLearning portal, news website or something else where you restrict content for subscribers, you should definitely consider S2Member.
Free, $89, $189
What We Liked
|Has a free version that is actually useful.|
|Has almost unlimited flexibility and potential.|
|PayPal payment option in free version.|
|Excellent documentation, KBs and instructional videos.|
|Huge scope for complex websites or large scale portals.|
|Huge scope for complex websites or large scale portals.|
What We Didn't Like
|The complexity of the setup is daunting.|
|Design of the UI leaves a lot to be desired.|
|No simple setup wizard.|
|Content dripping is a Pro-only option.|
Ease of use
What is S2Member?
S2Member is a WordPress plugin that allows you to create membership or subscription websites with relative ease. It includes everything you need to create membership tiers, set up subscription plans, accept payments and create a multi-layered membership website.
The plugin is based around shortcodes so you can theoretically use it any way you like and create as complex a setup as you wish. You can also keep things simple with basic membership options, content dripping and finite control over the who, when and where of your website content.
There is a free version of S2Member and a Pro version. The free plugin is basic but has enough to let you set up basic memberships and accept PayPal payments. The two Pro versions offer more features such as additional payment gateways, more membership tiers and content dripping.
The two premium versions differ by the number of sites you can use the plugin on.
Otherwise the two have exactly the same features.
Why use S2Member?
The strength of S2Member is in its flexibility.
The shortcode system means you can sort your content through membership tiers, offer one-off packages of content, set up eLearning courses while charging extra for supplementary content and a whole lot more. This flexibility brings complexity with it but with perseverance and patience, you could create a truly bespoke membership website.
S2Member is also feature-rich, offers unlimited membership tiers, multiple payment gateway options, and almost infinite customization options.
Unlike many WordPress plugins, you only pay once for the Pro versions rather than annually.
Combined with reasonable prices ($89 for single site licence and $189 for unlimited site licence), the plugin offers good value for money too.
Features of S2Member
S2Member has so many features that it is actually difficult to encapsulate them all in a single review so we have had to select just a few.
Standout features include:
- Supports content dripping.
- Offers unlimited membership tiers.
- Allows the creation of paid packages alongside memberships.
- Can use custom settings for extra customisation.
- Works with multiple payment gateways.
- Works with BuddyPress, bbPress and MailChimp.
- Excellent documentation.
- Decent security options.
Supports content dripping
Content dripping is a core feature of any competent membership plugin. It enables you to offer a steady flow of content to subscribers over time. This prevents someone registering once, downloading everything and not renewing and it keeps regular readers supplied with a steady flow of great content.
S2Member does restrict content dripping to the Pro version but is well worth using if you want to keep subscribers paying for your content.
Offers unlimited membership tiers
In theory, you should only need a few membership tiers otherwise things quickly become complicated both for you and for your members. Should you want the option of multiple tiers, S2Member Pro delivers.
The free option is limited to four but pay for Pro and you can literally have as many membership levels as you like. You can also set them all up with different access, pricing and features.
This will take a lot of time and patience to set up and to communicate effectively to your members but is something many other plugins don’t offer.
Allows the creation of paid packages alongside memberships
As well as unlimited tiers, S2Member also allows you to set up separate bundles or packages of content alongside them.
For example, if you’re running an eLearning website, you could offer standard subscriptions for courses and either set up special courses as separate bundles or offer supplementary course content for an extra fee. You could then charge different membership tiers different prices or offer non-subscriber access for a one-off fee.
Custom settings for extra customisation
S2Member has features for restricting downloads, restricting access to videos and files, customisation options for login screens, email templates, welcome screens, forms and a whole lot more.
If you want to brand everything and tune everything to your subscribers while leaving nothing out, this plugin lets you do it.
Every membership level, every piece of content, every file, video, audio clip or download can have multiple access levels or be locked down in any way you see fit.
Works with multiple payment gateways
The free version of S2Member offers PayPal payments, which is generous. Pay for the Pro version and you can use PayPal Pro, Stripe, Authorize.net or ClickBank. These cover most of the payment methods web users are likely to want and work with the various membership tiers and payment options within the plugin itself.
Works with BuddyPress, bbPress and MailChimp
S2Member works with many other WordPress plugins including BuddyPress, bbPress and MailChimp.
BuddyPress integration means you can use social media promotion to best effect while offering simple setup to users. bbPress allows you to control forum access according to membership and login status to enable basic access for non-logged-in users and full access to subscribers.
MailChimp integrates with the built-in email list features of the plugin to leverage leads and provide regular email updates, newsletters or other content to your mailing list.
It’s always good to see a developer take care of the support aspect of a product and S2Member is no different. In fact, we would argue it is more important for this plugin than many others due to its complexity. The documentation is clear, describes exactly how to configure the many, many settings you will need to set and has helpful guides on most aspects of S2Member.
There is also a populated forum that has been around for years and has hundreds of useful posts on the various aspects of setting up and troubleshooting the plugin. Finally, a decent knowledge base is also provided to walk you through the more popular questions and answers.
All versions of S2Member come with brute force login protection, IP restriction features, encryption and its own API for protecting both user data and your website content. Brute force login protection uses IP blacklisting to prevent multiple login attempts. IP restriction monitors member IP addresses to prevent login sharing and offers the ability to limit IP addresses per login.
Encryption uses S2Member’s own encryption key to protect the plugin, your website and user data while the API complements this while offering a security badge to help user confidence.
The S2Member user experience is a tough one to review.
On one hand, the user experience is positive.
You have complete control over how you set your membership site up and all settings have their own headings and descriptive text. But there are so many of these settings that even those of us who have been using WordPress for over a decade found ourselves scratching our heads and having to take a break and come back later.
You will need time, patience and the ability to break down multiple options into bitesize pieces. That way you can work through the plugin in a logical way.
The developers have done a lot of work to make setup as straightforward as possible.
Yet the way the plugin has been created offers so many configuration options and settings that it is all too easy to get lost. We aren’t the only ones to think that, most other reviewers have said much the same thing.
In a world of drag and drop page creation, setup wizards and multiple ways to create pages and posts, being faced with a page full of options, a strange green page background and small text is a little disconcerting.
This is not a criticism of how S2Member is built. Far from it.
Instead, it’s an illustration of the downside of having so much freedom and so many options within a WordPress plugin. It could definitely be formatted better, have clearer page design, larger fonts, and a setup wizard though.
How to set up and use S2Member
Initial installation and setup is the easy part of working with S2Member. If you elect to use the free version first, you can install it from the Plugin window on your WordPress dashboard.
You can then pay for Pro from within the dashboard to save any extra downloading.
Before you do any of that though, you need to have a plan. There is so much to set up, so much to do and so much potential in S2Member that it is too easy to get lost. We know as we did it while reviewing!
If you’re setting up a new membership site, it is advisable to have a plan. Set out how many membership tiers you want to create, what payment options you want to offer, what content should be available to what subscribers and how much detail you want to get into. You can perform these basic steps and then build up over time by adding personalised login screens and other tweaks later but you will need an idea of what you’re trying to achieve before you begin.
Initial setup goes something like this:
- Log into your WordPress dashboard and select Plugins.
- Select Add New and search for S2Member.
- Select Install and then Activate.
You will then see a banner at the top of your WordPress dashboard that asks you to review the plugin. This is a little confusing. What it means is to review the initial setup of S2Member and not review the plugin on WordPress.org. This is important to know as you can shortcut initial setup from that link.
If you select Yes to review, you will be taken to the welcome page. You will see a wall of text with some useful subheadings. We suggest taking the time to read each section as there is a lot of useful information there.
Next we need to create two new pages. A Subscribe page for a PayPal option or other payment gateway if you went Pro and a Members page that greets new members once they subscribe.
Setting up membership levels
One of the first tasks you will need to tackle is setting up your membership tiers. This is the core of your website and one of the first things you need to set up. Despite not being easy to find, it is easy to do.
- Navigate to S2Member and General Options.
- Select Membership Options and Membership Levels/Labels.
- Complete the form and change the tier names if required.
- Select Save All Changes at the bottom of the page.
You can leave the level names as default if you like or customise them as you see fit. You don’t need to create four levels, or more if you use S2Member Pro. Just create however many levels you decided in your initial setup plan.
With that done, we can perform the other basic configurations to get your membership website up and running.
There are over 250 settings you can configure in S2Member and it would take forever to go through them all here. Instead, we will cover some of the basic settings you will need to address to get your site up and running. From there, you can go through the others as and when you have the time.
Most of the initial settings will be done from General Options.
- Navigate to S2Member and General Options.
- Select the Security Subscription Key option and select Auto Generate. Save the key somewhere offline to extra security.
- Select Email Configuration and add the email address you want to use in outgoing emails. Add another email for support queries from users.
- Select Open Registration / Free Subscribers if you want to add a free membership tier.
- Select Registration/Profile Field options and set everything to Yes.
- Select Login welcome page and set it to the Members page you created earlier.
- Select Membership Option page and select the Subscriber page you created earlier.
- Save all your changes.
- Select PayPal Options in the WordPress side menu.
- Select PayPal Account Details and complete the form with your account information.
- Select PayPal IPN Integration and set it all up.
- Complete the other PayPal elements as necessary.
- Save all your changes.
If you bought S2Member Pro, you can do much the same with other payment gateways but for now we will leave PayPal as the default. All we need to do now is set up a payment button to allow subscribers to pay!
Now you have configured PayPal to act as your payment gateway and presumably set up Stripe, Authorize.net or ClickBank if you went Pro, it’s now time to add a button subscribers can click when they sign up.
- Select PayPal Buttons from the S2Member side menu.
- Select PayPal buttons for level #1 Access and complete the form.
- Select Generate Button Code and copy it.
- Open the Subscribe page that you made earlier.
- Paste the code onto the page and save your changes.
Repeat the above for every membership level you plan to offer while changing the appropriate settings within the button form. You can arrange the buttons on the Subscribe page in any way you like. You can also completely redesign the page if you have the skills.
Restrict content to subscribers
We have created our initial pages, set up basic S2Member settings, added PayPal as a payment method and created a button to allow payment. Now it’s time to restrict content to those subscribers. Despite the complexity of setting up the plugin, restricting content is refreshingly easy.
- Create or edit a post or page in WordPress that you want to restrict.
- Navigate to the S2Member box on the right of the edit page.
- Select the Post Level Restriction radio button and select the appropriate membership level.
- Update the page or post to implement the change.
- Rinse and repeat for every piece of content you want to control.
If you followed this guide and created a single membership level, select ‘#level 1 (or higher)’ in Step 3. If you have multiple membership levels, you just need to select the lowest membership level you want to restrict that piece of content to.
For example, if you want that page to be accessible to all subscribers, leave the setting at ‘#level 1 (or higher)’. If you want to restrict the content to higher membership tiers, select the appropriate lowest level of access.
All levels will be able to access lower levels of content as part of the setting, e.g. Level 2 will be able to access Level 1 and Level 2. Level 4 will be able to access Level 1, 2, 3 and 4.
Further S2Member setup
The process above is the very minimum setup required to get a membership website off the ground.
From there you have lots more settings to explore and configure. You can also edit your Subscribe and Member pages, set up independent content packages for a separate fee, set up content dripping (Pro), add other payment gateways and set up the email and marketing side of your website.
All those things are way beyond the scope of this review though so we will leave that for another time.
PROs and CONs
S2Member is an amazingly powerful plugin that could be the only one you ever need regardless of the size or scope of your website. It does have strengths and weaknesses though.
The strengths of the plugin include:
- Has a free version that is actually useful.
- Has almost unlimited flexibility and potential.
- PayPal payment option in free version.
- Excellent documentation, KBs and instructional videos.
- Huge scope for complex websites or large scale portals.
- Works with most WordPress plugins including caching, security and others.
The downsides of S2Member include:
- The sheer complexity of setup can be daunting.
- Design of the UI leaves a lot to be desired.
- No simple setup wizard.
- Content dripping is a Pro-only option.
Pricing is something S2Member gets very right.
There is a genuinely usable free version with a working PayPal payment gateway. Then there are two Pro options that offer the same features but differ by the number of sites you can use it on.
The free version of S2Member includes:
- Core plugin with PayPal integration.
- Full content restriction options including audio and video.
- Security options.
- Mailing list and plugin integration.
- Security certificate.
- API compatibility.
- Access to the source code.
S2Member Pro Single Site - $89
S2Member Pro includes everything in the free version, plus:
- Single site licence.
- One step registration and checkout.
- Unlimited membership levels.
- Advanced form and registration forms.
- Content dripping.
- Anti-spam feature.
- Login monitoring.
- Extra shortcodes and member controls.
S2Member Pro Unlimited Sites - $189
S2Member Pro Unlimited Sites includes the same features as Pro Single Site but with the added ability to use it on unlimited numbers of websites, including WordPress Multi-site.
Unusually, S2Member charges a one-off fee rather than an annual one. So while it may seem expensive on the surface, considering the sheer power of this plugin and the fact you only pay once and get updates forever, it’s actually very good value.
Discount / Coupon
Pricing for S2Member has been static for a long time and rarely are there discounts or coupons made available. If we find any, we will feature them here.
You don’t always have to take our word for something in our reviews. Here is what some other reviews had to say about S2Member.
The Membership Guys said:
‘I’m a massive s2 Member fan and it will always hold a special place in my heart as my first membership love (although it wasn’t actually the first membership plugin that I used). There’s absolutely no denying that it supplies a hefty bang for your buck, with even the free version offering more features than many other premium plugins. It’s also sturdy and reliable.’
Chris Lema said:
‘I find this plugin has shown no restraint on features. That means you'll probably love it. But since it has twenty million features, it also is really hard to use and takes a long time to set it up to do the things most businesses want to do.’
tips4gamers said on WordPress.org:
‘We are seriously impressed with this plugin and we highly recommend it. It was compatible with our theme's login and registration and has been completely compatible with our theme all-around. We were able to restrict our content how we pleased.’
Alternatives to S2Member
The membership plugin market is a crowded one with a diverse range of alternatives to choose from. Some notable alternatives include MemberPress, LearnDash, Teachable, Thinkific, Podia, Restrict Content Pro and Paid Memberships Pro. Each is slightly different in the features they offer and how they go about things but are viable alternatives to S2Member.
Here are some common questions we see around the subject of S2Member.
What is a membership plugin?
A membership plugin is the backbone of a WordPress membership website. It controls access to content depending on subscription levels and allows you to decide exactly who gets to see what, where, when and how. A good plugin will include multiple membership tiers, easy ways for subscribers to pay, content dripping and control over different types of content.
What is S2Member?
S2Member is a WordPress membership plugin that delivers all those features mentioned above. It enables you to create a membership website using membership tiers and allow access to content depending on those tiers. It has multiple payment types, lots of security features and is one of the most feature-rich plugins of its type available today.
How much does S2Member cost?
S2Member costs nothing for the free version, $89 for a single site licence or $189 for an unlimited site licence. That’s a one-off fee that includes all future updates and upgrades. The free version includes a PayPal payment gateway that most other plugins keep to premium versions, making S2Member a genuinely good deal.
S2Member is an immensely powerful WordPress plugin that offers complete control over any website of any size or scope and any complexity. It does all that either for free, or for a very reasonable price. S2Member could genuinely be the only membership plugin you ever need.
The free version could answer all your needs with a fully operational PayPal payment gateway. The Pro version adds other payment options, content dripping and dozens of other features. All for a one-off fee. Given the sheer power of the plugin, the amazing value it offers cannot be argued.
S2Member is complex. Very complex. It has over 250 different settings, pages of options and elements to configure and none of it has been designed to be very user-friendly. It seems that while the developer goes to great lengths to explain everything and show you how to use it, this is still a plugin designed by a developer for other developers. If you’re new to WordPress, you might struggle to begin with.
S2Member is a genuinely powerful membership plugin that is well worth that struggle. The documentation is excellent. There are numerous explanatory videos and there is a huge knowledge resource available to help you through.
S2Member is hard to bond with in the beginning. But once you do, you will likely find it is the last word in membership plugins and you won’t bother looking anywhere else!
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