Custom vs. Template Membership Sites: What is Right For You?


This tool will help you decide on which type of membership site is right for your association and why you should choose it

You’ve decided your association needs to improve your membership site. You’re now on the path to creating what is to become a vital part of your association’s growth. You’re eager to get started and looking for direction on the best course of action.

What is the benefit of a custom vs template membership site? You are wondering which should you go for. You want your membership site to be professional, engaging, and worth the investment! This blog is to help you understand the differences and benefits between a custom-built membership site and a template option. 

The Goal of Your Membership Site

To begin your journey, we need to understand what a membership site is and its purpose in your association. Specifically, a membership site, or member portal, offers exclusive gated access to a member-focused experience and member-specific content and benefits. Moreover, on top of the improved member experience, a well-designed membership site can help automate operations and make membership communication seamless. Additionally, a membership site can save your association time and money and keep your members fully engaged in your association.

What Are My Options for a Membership Site?

Just like regular websites, there are template options and custom built-from-scratch options. Additionally, there are many vendors that offer template member portal products or customized member portal development services. Consequently, the time required to investigate all the options is daunting

Let’s narrow the field by digging into what your association’s needs are and the benefits of a custom vs a template membership site

Start with Establishing Your Needs 

To determine the type of member portal that is right for your association, look internally at your association’s needs and goals. Write down your whys and your pain points. What problems do you have that you want your membership site to solve? Think about the ways a membership site can help your team perform your work. Are you hoping to improve member onboarding, event registration, or access to member benefits? Once you understand your big-picture goals, you can create a list of the features you want on your membership site.

Another important consideration is your internal resources: your financial resources and the staff hours that you are willing to devote to this project. Do you have developers or tech-savvy people on your team who can make membership site decisions and maintain the site, or is your team swamped as it is and you want to outsource the maintenance to a third-party vendor? Do you need your membership portal up and running quickly, or do your needs require customization and have a longer timeline in mind? Once you have answered these questions, then you can find the solution that is best for you.

The Template Membership Site

For small associations, the most popular option is a template solution. A template membership site is pre-built and comes with the structure and basic popular features. Some features that are generally included are onboarding support, easy browsing of member benefits, events listing, member database, website builder, membership renewals, and integration with a CMS.

Who Are Template Membership Sites Best Suited For?

Templates are the go-to for associations who are not in a position to make a major investment or have limited staff resources. Templates cost less and entail a quick development time. This could also work for you if you want a pretty straightforward membership site with a few simple benefits. Many companies offer template software solutions, each offering different features with its own area of expertise. For example, one might work best for a certain country or a certain size of the association. One may integrate well with your accounting tools but not do well with a learning management system, and vice versa. Keep in mind, they are not all easily customizable and one size cannot fit all. 

When to Avoid Template Membership Sites

Templates may not be a good fit for an association that wants a truly customized user experience for members. Specifically, the web page templates are highly structured and are not able to organize your information as you may want to. Additionally, you may want special features or integrations on your membership website that the templates cannot accommodate.

Consequently, you could run into some headaches when something breaks or you encounter a security issue, and you cannot easily find technical support. Moreover, as it is a template, they are not as unique in design and feel as a custom-built membership site.

A Question of Ownership

One important thing that should be taken into consideration is the issue of ownership. With a custom-built website, your association owns your member portal. (Make sure your contract says you own it!) For templates, however, the bones of the site do not belong to you. Switching at some point in the future will involve migrating your data and content, and asking your members to move with you and change is rough on everyone. 

Template Membership Sites Pros vs Con


  • Pre-built for faster start-up.
  • Lower cost ($60-$700/month).
  • Many template vendors to choose from.


  • Limited creatively.
  • Integrations are not always possible.
  • You do not have ownership of the membership site you are licensing.

The Custom-Built Member Portal 

For the association with a tech budget, high-level needs, and the desire to control the look and feel of their site, a customized member portal is the gold standard. Consequently, with a custom build, you can design your membership website the way you want with the user experience you want.

Additionally, you can have the features that are essential for member retention and membership management and include the integrations you need. Moreover, you’ll get to work with developers who can walk you through your project and offer on-demand technical support.

A custom member portal allows you to not only control the design of your page but also create automation for a lot of your back-end office work.

When To Avoid A Custom Membership Site

A custom membership website is not without drawbacks. As you are starting from scratch, development time takes months. A lengthy project takes a lot of effort and staff hours, not to mention unforeseen delays that can come up along the way. (Think: the project lead at your association goes on leave!) Another major concern for most people when it comes to a custom membership website is the cost. It is a huge leap from the cost of a template build. 

Custom-Built Membership Sites Pros vs Cons


  • Custom design. 
  • All the features you need.
  • Ongoing technical support. 
  • Ownership of the site. 


  • Longer development time (4-6 months).
  • Higher cost ($5,000-$30,000).
  • Ongoing time commitment from staff.
  • Maintenance costs.

Can We Have the Best of Both Worlds?

The argument between choosing a custom vs template membership site is not stopping any time soon. It is common for an association to be at a stage in its growth where the template membership sites on the market do not meet their needs, but the time involved for a custom-built membership site would delay their momentum. They may not have the budget or time for a custom-built membership website yet also want more support, features, and integrations than a template solution offers. A hybrid model is something to consider. 

The Hybrid Option

We have created the latest membership website technology: a unique member portal template that is a hybrid of the custom and template option, called Member Lounge. Member Lounge is designed to engage association membership and will guarantee happy members!

The Member Lounge Advantage

Member Lounge offers you a quick and easy setup with a beautiful pre-built membership website. It gives you the ability to create the customizations and integrations on your wishlist. Member Lounge offers support throughout your project setup and provides ongoing maintenance, hosting, security updates, and development services. 

Cost & Timeline

Member Lounge is not less expensive than a custom-built site in the long run, but it gets you a highly engaging membership site up and running in just a few days! The membership site also belongs to you. You do not need to license it.

Book a Demo

Learn more about Member Lounge and see a demo by booking a call with our team today! ​


Farhad Khan, CEO

A tech entrepreneur specialized in creating membership websites for professional associations to increase member engagement. My background is as an engineer for Nortel and Ericsson. I started my own tech company in 2009 to help associations and nonprofits solve their challenges with my digital technology skills.