We talk a lot here about how online publishers can build a sustainable business around their content. With advertising revenue fading fast, it is up to publishers to build a cycle that converts readers into email subscribers and then eventually converts email subscribers into paying members.
It goes without saying then, that membership software is one of the most important building blocks for building a sustainable business around an online publication. And in this space, we feel that there is one member platform that really changes everything for small publishers: Ghost.
For those that are not familiar, Ghost is an open source content management system (CMS) that started from a kickstarter campaign back in 2013. Essentially, it was a project that started as an attempt to create an alternative to WordPress that was less focused on limitless, complex customization options, but rather on creating a simple and clean publishing experience that made starting an online publication more accessible to everyone.
Over the years, the Ghost team has taken that same laser-focus on simplicity, and trained it on key features that publishers need to build their business. The most exciting of these developments was the release of their membership management features a little over a year ago.
Now that they have fully entered the online membership software space, Ghost has changed the game for small publishers. Here’s some of the reasons we’re big fans and why they should be the first option you think of for membership management software.
First, they are an open source project. Similar to WordPress, they have released all of their software under the MIT license which makes it absolutely free to use and customize to your needs. They make money by offering premium hosting and deployment options, rather than selling the software itself.
This should matter to small publishers for a couple of reasons. The first and most obvious is that without much technical knowledge at all, or just a one-time set-up fee, you can have a free software solution that not only runs your publishing, but also your membership management as well.
The second reason this is important, is that unlike private companies with closed software that could shut down at any time, you know that as an open source project, Ghost will be around as long as people are using it enough to be willing to work on it. And even in the worst case scenario where the open source enthusiasm shifts somewhere else and the project shuts down, you would still own your own software and member data which means you would control your own transition to something else.
Sustainably Funded Non-profit
Second, Ghost is organized as a non-profit organization and they have not raised any funding from venture capital firms or other investors. Their business model is pretty simple to understand: they sell hosting for managed-setups of Ghost, and they use that money to hire more people to improve their software.
This matters because you can be confident that their features won’t change suddenly in a way that hurts your business. Publishers have seen this in the past with Medium, where they shifted all of their content there only to realize they lost control of their subscriber and member data.
Any business that is funded by private investors will have the motivation to try to lock you into their service at some point, which is one of the reasons that people are skeptical of Substack. With Ghost’s non-profit and open source approach to member software, this is not a concern you have to have in the back of your mind.
As we mentioned before, Ghost is an open source project and as a result, all of their software is completely free to use, including their membership management features. (this doesn’t include Stripe’s payment processor fees, those will be based on your account with them)
In comparison, other platforms that provide membership software providers like Memberstack, Memberful and Pico take either a cut of your transactions or charge a monthly fee based on the number of members you have. Ghost lets you scale as big as you can for absolutely free - from the very first member to member 1 million it’s all the same cost.
(almost) All of the Membership Features you could ask for
Ghost’s free membership software has all of the basic member features that you need. There is the ability to capture email signups and collect payments from new members. Then once members are signed up, they are captured in the Ghost database. The platform then gives you the option to publish posts either as:
- Open to the public
- Available to free subscribers
- Available to paid members
You can also easily set prices for your paid memberships in the Ghost back-end and this automatically relays the data to Stripe who handles the payments. All-in-all, it delivers the core set of membership management features that you need to build a business around your online content. And depending on which Ghost theme you are using, you should be able to use all of these features right out of the box. In fact, we built our own open source theme for Ghost that puts email subscribers at the center of your site, check it out here:
(It doesn’t yet support paid members, but we are working on a paid version that does - drop us a line if you are interested!)
A couple of places that could use improvement are the newsletter features and the membership API. Currently the newsletter features don’t yet fully replicate something like Mailchimp in terms of customization, automations, and analytics so it may be necessary to integrate that. Ghost gives you the option to do it through Zapier but this can add some costs depending on your list size.
Also, the membership features aren’t available through the Ghost API yet, but this is supposed to be on the way. This will open up the possibilities even further as you could use Ghost just as membership management software if you wanted to, while using something like WordPress as your CMS.
We think that Ghost’s membership management software is something that small online publishers should seriously consider building their business around. Since it is open source and sustainably funded, you know they are not going to pull the rug out from under you like other companies might. And since it is free software, once you get it set up you can be sure that the costs won’t add up as you grow your members. Overall, it offers a powerful yet simple set of membership features that we think can’t be matched for small publishers.