Small Business Marketing Without Wordpress

Table of Contents

Here are some of my lessons learned from online marketing with and without Wordpress. I hope I can save someone else quite a bit of work.

The Original Site

The Ideal

My wife recently ran a medium-sized outdoor festival and needed some help with building a web application. I do that sort of thing for a living, so I volunteered to help.

We brainstormed and determined that the site would need to support the following requirements:

  1. Perform moderately complex tasks like registering vendors and coordinating volunteers.
  2. Provide "light" web copy
  3. Be delivered in 2 weeks of my free time :-)

When I usually need to create a complex application in a hurry my first and favorite tool is the Django framework. I considered Wordpress too for the task but chose Django because I already knew how to create a Django application. Wordpress would require skills that I didn't yet have.

And besides, it's not like I'm going to spend all of my time writing copy on this thing. That's what Facebook is for, right?

Reality

Two weeks later I had a decent little app coded from "scratch" that satisfied all of my requirements. Vendors were able to apply for positions, the web copy looked good, and the site loaded very quickly to boot. Heck, I even did it all with Docker, which made code changes and deployments that much easier.

But then a few funny things happened on the way to the festival:

  1. We determined that the app development requirements were much larger than expected, and that it would be much cheaper and easier to use third-party services.
  2. My wife stopped using Facebook for marketing the festival for complex and unexpected reasons.

So now, the Django-based web application that I developed to solve non-trivial problems needed to be reborn as a marketing tool, after I had spent a month developing it and during a time when I really didn't have time to start over with Wordpress.

We therefore had a "publishing" process that looked like this:

  1. My wife would spend her very precious and limited free time writing copy.
  2. She would send it to me and request that I post it on the site.
  3. When I had free time later I would then spend between 15-60 minutes taking her copy and formatting it to work within one of our Django templates.
  4. I would test the "new version" of the site on my laptop.
  5. I would push the "code" to the public-facing server.

Why didn't my wife just perform steps 2-5? Because "copy" on my site was treated like "code", which is ok if your site have very little copy and doesn't change often but is really a pain if you're managing mostly press releases. And my wife, who's incredibly smart and talented and hard-working doesn't happen to be a developer for a living and was far too busy at the time to learn how to do something very, very new.

And so it went for 3 months. Copy changes were slow, cumbersome, and way too expensive from a person-hours perspective. Every week I promised her that things would be much better for the next festival.

Part 2

The Ideal (Part 2, Now With Hindsight!)

After the festival was over and we had a few days to breathe my wife and I brainstormed again about what "the web site" should do. Here's the requirements:

  1. We need a CMS that makes it easy for multiple people to edit it. No more "code changes" to fix a typo and no more waiting on multiple people to find free time to perform a single task.
  2. The ability to send newsletters to people who can subscribe and unsubscribe easily.
  3. The ability to use lots of pre-built marketing tools that we don't yet know we need.

So of course I chose Wordpress. I've worked with half a dozen CMS' over 14 years, and I can't imagine a better tool for the job.

Reality (So Far)

So far things are going well. It took me about 2 days to setup a "demo" version of the site that is:

  1. Deployed using Puppet and Docker, which makes a lot of things easier
  2. Running on a free Amazon EC2 instance, which is a nice price
  3. Reasonably secure by sysadmin standards (thanks to Bitnami!)
    1. HTTPS by default
    2. Good vulnerability-related results when tested with WPscan and Nikto2.
  4. Able to send newsletters and manage a mailing list using the following awesome and free Wordpress plugins:
    1. WP Mail SMTP Plugin by Mail Bank (for SMTP which I point at my Mailjet account)
    2. SendPress (to manage my mailing lists and newsletters)

Of course time will tell, but so far I'm very happy with the results and how much bang I'm getting for my time and financial bucks.

What I Love About Using Wordpress To Host This Site

So why am I happier running a Wordpress instance than "rolling my own" site using Django (or any other framework for that matter)?

Inversion of responsibilities

With the old site, I spent 90% of my time changing copy or tweaking CSS (touchy-feely marketing stuff) and 10% of my time doing things like patching software and adding security features and other really important admin stuff.

I have to admit the the touchy-feely stuff was fun and that I don't get a chance to do it much. However, what I really like to do and what I'm really good at is the server-side, admin stuff.

With Wordpress I can focus solely on the server-side, admin stuff. You want a new theme? Great, there's a huge ecosystem of cheap, high-quality themes available for Wordpress that can be configured and installed by just about anyone.

Do you need to add custom functionality to the site? You only have to look as far as the plugin marketplace for that. There are literally thousands of free, high-quality plugins to choose from that will do almost anything you could possibly need. And the ones that aren't free are usually much less than $100 for a yearly license. And the person that needs that feature can certainly install that plugin.

Finally, how about lots of new copy (or images or videos or whatever)? Well duh, it's Wordpress :-) This is it's bread and butter, and anyone that can use a word processor can easily learn how to create content in a Wordpress site.

Multiple tracks of progress

Which takes me to my favorite part about switching to Wordpress. With the old site, we had one funnel for everything - me. I was in charge of security, style changes, copy updates, new functionality, etc. I'm sure there's a lot of things that I did that I don't even remember.

And because I was the only person who could make changes there was only one "lane" of traffic. Everything went through me when I had time to do it.

But what I like to say about Wordpress is that you can have multiple, independent tracks of work running simultaneously. For example, you can assign all of these tasks to separate people:

  • Server maintenance
  • Plugin discovery/installation/maintenance
  • Copy writing
  • Copy editing
  • Theme development/maintenance

But here's the awesome part. Not only can you assign all of these tasks to separate people, but they can work on these tasks independently of each other. The copy editor shouldn't care of the server admin implements a new firewall rule. The plugin person shouldn't really care if the theme's CSS changes slightly. All of these people can work at the same time with completely separate agendas and time schedules.

This gives us multiple, concurrent tracks of progress, which is much faster than the single track of progress that used to go straight through me (when I had time).

NOT Click or Flamebait

Before I finish I want to make sure that my message is clear:

Wordpress is a wonderful tool for creating sites that are marketing-centric and require lots of updates and collaborators.

YMMV, but there are much worse tools to use as a "first choice" when creating a small-to-medium sized site.

Is it good for lots of other things? I'm sure it is but I wouldn't know because I haven't had to use it for those reasons.

Is it "better" than Django? What a silly question. Django is a wonderful framework for developing rich applications quickly and easily. I've used it on multiple occasions and have been very happy with the results. It wasn't perfect for this application, but then again hindsight is 20/20. If my requirements hadn't changed drastically 6 weeks into my project I wouldn't be writing this article.

Addendum

This whole post kindof turned into a "buy, don't build" argument. This reminds me of a bunch of posts from one of my favorite tech writers Avdi Grimm.

He's an expert Ruby and Rails developer that recently re-built his custom-made business site on top of Wordpress. He's written a few articles on exactly why he did that, and it's probably the #1 reason I even chose to consider Wordpress (and stinky old PHP) when I was designing my wife's site.

Here's some of his best posts on the subject:

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