Subs ain’t subs: WooMembers bundle

18 December, 2017 Ebono Institute0

Despite being the darling of IT developers, the failure of WooCommerce Subscriptions to support traditional content developers
has serious implications for WooCommerce’s reputation in the wider community.

With 2 million stores using WooCommerce it is by far and away the most popular solution for ecommerce in the world. It has been gaining market share from other similar platforms over the last five years and remains almost ten times bigger than its main rival, Shopify, which is aimed at the absolute beginner market happy to use a hosted shop to sell a handful of goods.

It is little wonder then, that the official WooCommerce stamp on Woocommerce Subscriptions has seen it race ahead of its rivals in the market and attract a significant volume of business. Its role as one of the lead components in the Woocommerce Membership package has not hurt its reputation either.

The WooCommerce Members Bundle retails for $299 per year and provides a membership solution, subscriptions, management of downloadable files, a stripe payments gateway, a bidding system (Name your Price) and a bunch of themes.

It is billed as the complete solution to managing a commercial memberships site and we compared that with Memberpress and a number of other comprehensive products in the market before recommending it as a suitable solution for our client.

All the products making up the bundle claim to be comprehensive but as you get down to the nitty gritty, they are generally designed for a purpose and have been stretched and st

WooCommerce Subscriptions, by Prospress, is ideally suited to software developers who want to monetise their tools and widgets by extracting regular payments from customers who, a decade ago, would have downloaded the product once and then reluctantly paid for support or upgrades every five years or so.

It is not quite so well suited for content developers, though.

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Content sales do not work

The challenges emerge when you want to use it to do what every magazine and newspaper publisher in the world does, that is, sell content to some people under different packaging arrangements. In this world, a subscription generally means an advance payment that gives you access to content that other people have to purchase.

For example, I might sell memberships to a certain class of customer using the integration between Subscriptions and Memberships to manage the renewals of the membership sales. As soon as I assign any content to that group of customers, though, it becomes their exclusive property and everyone else is simply told they have to buy a membership to see it.

The first line of challenge is that WooCommerce Subscriptions are supported by Prospress , Memberships by SkyVerge and Subscriptions Downloads by the WordPress Woocommerce team known as Automattic. You very quickly start to get referred around in circles unless you can identify a specific problem as “belonging” to one or the other of the three parties.

The second problem is that the “support” that is offered is really just pre-sales hand holding. Any one who can read the basic manuals provided can answer the questions most people will have on installing the product and setting it up.

As soon as your request crosses the line of “our product does not do that out of the box” you are directed away from the support area to the advanced users forums and facebook pages, where there are lots of traps for young players. On one hand, the more straight forward enquiries tend to be met with, “I hate to be the a..hole, but can you explain what is advanced about that question?”

On the other hand, as soon as the question has any serious content the standard responses tend to be “Why don’t you get yourself a developer?”

We quickly gathered a library of comments at both end of the spectrum.

Most of those problems we found workarounds to, without any support from the software companies but some support from independent freelancers who know woocommerce well.

Once we started to delve into GitHub and the code itself, to get some serious answers to the more pesky questions, though, we realised there are some really serious problems with this software.

Bugs and denial

Our problems quickly fell into a couple of areas.

Missing functionality

Automated emails Despite being advertised as a complete commercial solution for managing a membership and subscription system with lots of glowing descriptions of the automated emails that would relieve your admin staff of every having to work again, it turns out you have to buy an additional product Follow Ups to get all but the most basic email features. Neither Prospress nor Automattic deigned to answer our email suggesting that it was an unreasonable exclusion given the marketing hype around automation.

Import export The Subscriptions developer, Prospress, offers a beta version of an import feature which failed to carry out a number of functions. We eventually got it to work on a basic subscription but it failed to deal with the variable subscriptions our client was selling adequately. A commercial product by Xadapter, worked well but did not handle subscription downloads. On being advised of this, Xadapter had a working solution within 48 hours.

WooMembers bundle
A product is charged for each time a file is attached to it

Good old fashioned bugs

Xadapter responded to our bug report without missing a beat. Yes you are right our product does not do that and it should, we will notify you when it is fixed, and then it was fixed.

Automattic, on the other hand, has been sitting on the report of a major bug for two weeks and despite regular contact has not once provided a road map for repair, or acknowledgement that the problem is serious. And it is. If you have a subscription product with three files attached, that product gets listed and charged three times in the renewal. This means that customers are getting invoices for multiples of the price they agreed to pay.

Undesirable behaviour

These are always the hardest problems to fix, because one customer’s core business may be on another customer’s wish list and a long way down the developer’s forward plan.

We understand that, and indicated a willingness and a desire to be pointed to the right areas of the software to make the changes ourselves.

We have already tweaked the system to allow subscriptions to filter the available product by date (not out of the box) and to prevent downloading of streamable content (get yourself a developer) and to bypass the restrictions that woocommerce downloads places on audio and video players (we did not even ask).

The main problem is one that affects all content developers who sell content as individual products but would like to package it as part of a subscription as well. I have already talked about the failure of the Membership system to differentiate between a free and a paying customer, with the subscription system it gets worse.

I can sell someone a subscription and then supply them with free content during the life of their subscription that other people can buy at the same time.

A $149 subscription renews at thousands of dollars

So far so good.


The nightmare occurs when it is time to renew the subscription.

Now the system checks what products form part of the subscription and charges the customer for the renewal of their original subscription, plus ALL the products that have been given to them during the life of the subscription. When this is compounded with the bug that causes the multiplication of the number of products by the number of files each product contains, our client has subscribers who are being charged $7,000 for what they thought was a $149 subscription!

This is a serious PR disaster.

Is WooMembers bundle for you?

If you are a software developer monetising your products this product works perfectly. It was built for people like you, by people like you.

If you are a content developer looking for something to manage your business model make sure that your development cycle allows you to test your business model in this software within the 30 day money back period. You can achieve this by thinking hard about what your business model is, and then setting out a plan to implement a test case of this before you download and install the software on a trial basis. Once you have verified that it will do what you need, then you can take the time to work through the cosmetics and the customer messaging.




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