Last night I hacked into the e-course of a prominent Squarespace blogger and downloaded one of her classroom files. Ok, that sounds more dramatic than it actually was. I basically used a little trick to bypass her log-in screen and was able to access the raw page data from where I could skimmy any text content and identify file locations. This took me all of two minutes.
Why did I do this?
It is no secret that while I love Squarespace it does have some limitations with regards to certain features, one of them being the absence of a membership system that would allow users to log-in and access private areas on a website. Which presents a challenge to those of us who want to host an e-course on our Squarespace websites.
This caused me pause for sure. And a fair bit of frustration and agonizing. Then I decided to get clear on what was important and what I wanted to achieve:
An enjoyable and user friendly experience for my students. I've attended courses with confusing double log-ins and awful looking 'classrooms', not ideal.
Keeping my content safe and on my own website.
Design and brand consistency.
Keeping my costs reasonable.
The way I saw it I had three options:
1. Use a 3rd party log-in tool like the ones described above.
2. Use an external teaching platform that specializes in e-courses.
3. Use Squarespace's built-in password feature.
Option 1 with the tools currently available does not feel robust enough, especially as I also had some technical issues with one of them and some trust issues with the other, which I'll explain more later. Overall these tools feel clunky and a little unfinished.
Option 2 will keep content safe and can be a great solution for those of us who center their services around e-courses. Personally I did not like that it took people away from my site with no clear way back, it caused design inconsistencies and can be expensive.
The 3rd party lowdown
This tool has been built exclusively for Squarespace and the guys behind it are super nice and provide great service. When I first tested it I had some issues with their code, but since then they've come a long way in creating a more stable, efficient and secure system. It is still possible to access raw page data with that little Java trick but file content is now better protected. However, I still have an issue with their pricing model which is based on the number of users you have. This makes sense for membership services where customers pay recurring subscriptions, but not so much for evergreen courses where mymemberspace charges an ongoing monthly fee for every single life-time student even though that student only paid you once. If you consistently attract a lot of students to your courses then these fees can be more easily absorbed, but when you're just starting out this can quickly become an expensive exercise when you can least afford it.
The tool itself felt a little more polished than Memberspace and a little easier to set up and did not break one of my pages. However, I read comments from other people on a Squarespace forum I attend who had huge technical issues with GoPaywall. At just under $20 per month for unlimited users this provider is pretty competitive. My main beef with them though? Lack of transparency. There is no information on their company or the people behind them. Their customer service took two days to reply to my emails and their response came from a gmail address. I actually think this is just a one-man show run out of someone's garage. I could of course be totally wrong with this impression but to me all of this felt a little shady and uncertain. If I am about to embed someone else’s code and service into my process and website then I want some assurance that they are a solid and respectable company that will stick around for a while.
This was the external teaching platform I liked the most. All pricing is for unlimited users and starts at $39 per month. However, at that level they also charge a hefty 5% fee on all your sales so get your calculator out when comparing everyone's prices. I liked the overall feel and there is some flexibility with the design to bring it closer to your own branding. The classroom tools all looked professional and of course your content is pretty safe here. I was very tempted by this service and even signed up and paid for a month to try it out. But in the end I always came back to the same issue: I want to keep my students on my website and provide a consistent environment for my courses with the design flexibilities that I only have on Squarespace.
Other tools I looked at
TinyPass is actually the one I was able to bypass on the blogger's website, they are now part of Piano whose services seem to be geared towards bigger companies and I just found them confusing. Sentry has a terrible website, their parent company even more so (as a designer that immediately puts me off) and overall there was a similar lack of transparency as with GoPaywall. Just doesn't make me feel good to work with someone like that. Heard a mixed bag of good things about Ruzuku and Thinkific but didn't research them beyond their respectable pricing.
The way forward
I decided to go with Option 3 and use Squarespace's built-in password. Not as secure as an external teaching platform but a little more secure than a 3rd party log-in tool.
Here is the thing: I don’t want to run my course on the assumption that everyone is out to steal from me. Yes, there are (real) hackers and plagiarizers all over the place but I won’t allow my worries about them to keep me from doing my own work. At the very core of everything I run a heart-centered business and as such it is my sincerest hope that I will mostly attract like-minded people:
Hardworking and soulful entrepreneurs and small business owners who want to learn how to create a beautiful and well organized website.
And I am choosing to put just enough layers of protection and trust around my content to be able to teach them just that from within my own site.
I wrote a follow-up post where I reflect on two years of hosting ecourses on Squarespace and why I - and my students - still love it!