Membership websites come in all shapes and sizes, and include everything from simple blogs that require a login to rich content sites with privileged access to premium content based on the status of membership.

Building and managing a membership website with different levels of membership is a fairly sophisticated undertaking, so I recommend using a comprehensive technology solution with the built-in features you and your members need. This should include an e-commerce platform combined with a content management system that allows you to charge your members for physical products, downloadable products, streaming content and page views.

The best membership sites also allow you to create custom home pages for different levels of membership, and to manage member discounts or free access to products and content based on the status of membership. It's also a good idea to look for a provider that includes free support and ongoing advice to make sure you are aware of the latest business models and trends for running a membership-based site.

Here's a rundown of three popular options for building a membership website or adding premium membership features to your existing site:

-- The SubHub platform is a cost-effective, web-based, all-in-one solution that supports any combination of free and paid membership levels. It even allows content and downloads to be displayed on a pay-per-view basis for members who are not subscribed to a high enough level. The platform also includes a built-in blog, an online store, member forums and good search engine optimization features.

-- If you would rather download and install software, Membergate is another all-in-one solution with a well-established base of customers. The software can be purchased outright so you'll only pay a monthly hosting fee, or you can pay monthly with a higher flat-fee that includes hosting.

-- Wishlist is a Wordpress plugin that adds membership features to a standard Wordpress blog. Wordpress is an open-source blog platform, so it's possible to create your own highly-customized solution by plugging in only the components you need. Customization, however, has its limitations if you're not familiar with PHP programming, FTP, or HTML.

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