WordCamp takes deep dive into WordPress

WordPress users, designers and developers gather in Brisbane

BY the mighty Brisbane River, a touch over 360 WordPress professionals and enthusiasts attended the two-day WordCamp 2018 conference across two auditoriums at the QUT Garden Point campus.
A schedule of 27 sessions covered the business and technical side of WordPress – the world’s most popular content management system – with 30 speakers listed on the WordCamp Brisbane website (some of the talks were double-acts).

Jen Jeavons: Humanising your digital experience

“At this point everything was starting to unravel. The record company was on me, telling me I need to get a tan and a boob job and get photographed down on Bondi Beach like Sophie Monk was.”

No, this wasn’t a derailing website project for a client in the music industry with boundary issues. Rather, Jen Jeavons was recalling her pre-digital days as a pop music writer and performer.

Jeavons, now managing director of Pixel Palace digital agency in Brisbane, advocates putting a person out front of a business and, accordingly, was telling her story at WordCamp Brisbane 2018.

“I started realising that humanising my story like this has massive value. It’s making people connect with me, understanding it wasn’t all great. Showing some vulnerability. They remember me.”

Singer with Savage Garden

Long story short: It’s the late 90s and the-then Jen Waite flees from an applied science degree (quirkily, at the university where she was speaking) and travels the world a few times as a backup singer for the chart-topping duo, Savage Garden. After which, in 2001, she has a big hit of her own, Pleased to Meet You, with her band Aneiki. In fact, it was the most-played song on Australian radio that year.

She evoked a murmur from the WordCamp audience when she revealed her taxable income for that year was a mere $4000 (one person in the audience had guessed $1 million). And that was about as good as it got for Jeavons in Aussie pop music. The hits dried up and the record company cut her loose. But they let her access the website they had built for Aneiki, which they had no plans to maintain or update.

To stay in touch with her fans, Jeavons had to learn how to work the website. She took a course and found her new passion, and successful career. For years she shied away from discussing her pop past because she felt people would think her a failure. But that’s changed. She’s embraced her one-hit history.

“I’m using it now. I’m telling this story.

“Being real and open and genuine and showing vulnerability let’s people connect with you.”

Success proves a grind

Jen and her husband, Ryadan Jeavons, also own a coffee e-shop, CoffeeBeansDelivered.com.au, launched a few years ago, in part, to show they could walk the walk as an e-commerce agency.

Anyhoo, in keeping with Jen’s push to humanise the digital experience, Ryadan was shoved out the front of the coffee site. There’s a pic of him on the home page, he’ll send handwritten notes with some deliveries, he calls customers to put out spot fires and, crucially, appears in a series of tips’n’tricks videos for their social media funnel.

Jen said: “What this has done for customer feedback and ownership has been honestly gobsmacking. I can’t believe what it did.”

Take, for example, customer reaction to a bad courier experience.

“The tone is materially different in how they communicate with us because they feel like it’s a person who they like, so I think this is super powerful.

“And, you know, there’s a generation coming through of digital natives that don’t have a distinction between their digital world and their real world and so we have to be doing this in order to really connect with everyone.”

Jen’s also a fan of live chat – she uses Tawk.to on the coffee site and Crisp.chat for Pixel Palace.

“There are stats that say live chat increases conversion on an e-commerce site by 30 to 40 per cent.

“We can testify that. It did it for Coffee Beans.

‘When people are in a product, being able to talk to a real human and ask a question in real
time is hugely helpful in getting them to get right to that end bit and press ‘Go’ on the payment.”

Surprise and delight

Designing for humans is the approach Jen recommends, with focus on four areas:

  • Know your user
  • Design for emotion
  • Beware of sensory adaptation
  • Cut cognitive load

What’s sensory adaptation, you ask? People tend to block out a stimulus they are frequently exposed to. Say you spend a day in a strange house with a grandfather clock. It gives you a start every time it chimes on the hour. But after a week you’ve stopped noticing the booming “boings”. That’s sensory adaptation.

For a digital example, think of a banner ad on a website.

“If everyone in your industry has the same exact layout, this is going to play into sensory adaptation. People start filtering out stuff because it looks the same as everything else.

“You can change this up by adding in little elements of surprise and delight into your site design-wise.

“Whether it’s colour, typography, photography, the wording, copy, headlines, not using the same headline that everybody else uses, so that you stand out and you jolt people out of that sensory adaptation problem.”

Guided selling

On cognitive load, Jen said: “If people get to a site and they’re overwhelmed they switch off, they bail out.

“Too many fonts, too much content jammed in, not enough white space, not a clear user path, bad navigation, not knowing where to click – that just tires people, whether they realise it or not, and they start dropping off.”

‘Guided selling’ as a remedy for cognitive load and/or choice paralysis had worked well on the coffee website, Jen said.

Visitors are offered a “Help Me Decide” button on the home page, which takes them through a Gravity Forms-powered quiz to produce a product recommendation for them.

“When we did this it increased our conversions by over 200 per cent immediately.”

Jen described her method as:

  • Put a person out front
  • Outperform your competition
  • Create a unique experience
  • Deliver your product faster

“Nobody wants to read a mission statement from Tesla but they do want to read a blog post from Elon Musk.”

My 2 Cent’s Worth: Two things. Firstly, exercise some caution if you’re tempted to change website layouts as a remedy for sensory adaptation. It’s true there has developed a sameness to website design and structure but that’s because the sector has matured and settled upon a format that works.

If you start moving features around from what is mainstream, or if they don’t operate as expected, you are just going to frustrate your user.

Consider the car, if you will. Hop in the driver’s seat of any make or model and you will instinctively know where to find things. If you had to hunt around for the ignition or indicators, you’d be irritated and cursing your user experience.

On a website, try to mix things up – to surprise and delight – within the confines of the accepted template. For instance, stick with the hero image with unique value proposition and call to action above the fold on the home page, but make the image striking, clever and original. Or maybe it’s an evocative video background.

Newspaper and magazine layout and information infrastructure have stayed pretty much the same for the past three decades. It’s via their content that the different publications combat sameness and create their points of separation.

To my second point, certainly the benefits of putting a personality to a business – especially a dry, transactional e-shop – are clear to see, but it’s not without a potential drawback. Say in five years Ryadan Jeavons decides he’d like a new challenge. He wants to sell diver’s watches online. But he’s just spent half a decade establishing himself as The Coffee Guy. How can he then be The Diver’s Watch Guy? Will he find that, like Fronzie before him, he is typecast for life? Seems to be a pick’n’stick tactic, which may not suit every entrepreneur.

Mandy Weidmann: Building A Community Using All.The.Tools

Procrastinators be advised – you and Mandy Weidmann will probably have little to chat about.

“I’m a dreamer and a doer. I get stuff done,” the ‘Fundraising Whisperer’ told her WordCamp Brisbane audience.

“I actually have this saying; I like to add GSD to everything I do, which is Get Shit Done.” (This is a play on GST, an Australian consumption tax that is added to most goods and services.)

Mandy is owner and editor of the Fundraising Directory and she was putting herself forward at WordCamp Brisbane 2018 as a WordPress publisher, with particular focus on her recent website redevelopment and her love of plugins and other apps.

“I mess around with tools all the time and try to push the boundaries of what they can do for me and my audience,” the ‘recovering lawyer’ said.

For example, on her new website Mandy uses a chatbot, Quriobot (with MailChimp signup built-in), as a form of guided navigation to take users to the content they’re looking for.

Another is form-builder Typeform paired with automation tool Zapier. She’ll send a templated form to one of her supplier-advertisers on the topic of, say, “A Day in Your Life”. They’ll complete the form and, thanks to Zapier, their replies will appear in backend of her WordPress site as a Post, ready to go after any editing. In return for this coverage on her website, Mandy receives a link back from the advertiser, which supports her Google search ranking.

The main way Mandy creates content, however, is via her Facebook page and groups where she has close to 40,000 followers and members. Someone will ask, for instance, “How do I run a successful P&C sausage sizzle?” and all the experienced fundraisers will reply. Mandy then compiles those replies into a fresh resource for the website.

Until recently, Mandy ran three websites to which databases and other functionality had been tacked on over the years. She brought in Brisbane’s OSE digital agency to consolidate the websites into one and to optimise its performance.

OSE’s Paul Dunstone joined Mandy’s presentation to discuss in more detail the redevelopment, which had included a complete migration to Amazon Web Services.

“We actually seeing 50 per cent of new business coming through the door of disgruntled customers who’ve had a previous developer,” Paul said. (There was no mention of whether Mandy had been displeased with her previous agency.)

He said WordPress had extended well beyond “cutsie little blogs and mum and dad sites”.

“There are some serious projects online that are in WordPress. There are some very big players who use WordPress. And the people who really succeed in WordPress are very strategic.”

Paul stressed the need for clients to devote attention and energy to their digital project, rather than assuming the “web developer will solve all my problems and I’ll take no involvement”.

“A web project really runs well when the client takes some time to invest in it. After all, it is their business.”

Mandy admitted to the audience she was an “app addict”. Paul said: “The WordPress community has a terrible reputation of loading up websites with plugin upon plugin.

“So much so that we are actually seeing clients come in with 75 plugins installed on their website.”

Plugins add code complexity and many – WooCommerce for example – will load their scripts on every page of the website, whether they are used on that page or not. This harms load speeds, which equates to lost users/clients/dollars.

Paul said he ran audits on new clients’ websites and would rip out plugins where possible. He also used PHP code “include” statements to selectively deploy plugin files only where they were needed. “It’s super simple, fundamental, and hardly anybody does it.”

He also reminded current and would-be website owners that digital projects came with ongoing maintenance and other costs beyond initial setup.

“It seems like everyone has forgotten that these days.

“Maintenance is something that you need to be considering upfront.

“It may be annoying to spend an extra 20 bucks on a server to backup your site per month, but for us to recover the whole thing when you wipe over a file or completely destroy things is exponential.”

The majority of his e-commerce clients were seeing 60 per cent of access via a mobile device, he said.

M2CW: There were some useful takeaways from Mandy’s talk, beyond WordPress.

She offered these four bits of business advice for success:

  • Don’t listen to unsolicited advice (She was aware of the irony)
  • A business is only a clever idea until someone hands over money
  • Stay fun
  • Persistence overcomes resistance

Before starting Fundraising Directory, Mandy had a flop with another business idea – laundry detergent as a fundraising product. But she kept moving forward. And then her co-founder, Helen, died. Mandy grieved, and then she kept moving forward.

The supplier directory is a good example of business success from solving a problem. Her words: “School and club fundraising organisers were time-poor volunteers with a high turnover and not much handover or guidance. They were reinventing the wheel all of the time and didn’t know where to look for help.” But with the help of the Fundraising Whisperer and her content and list of suppliers, there can be less of a learning curve and more continuity, efficiency and effectiveness.

I’m not sure if Mandy sat in on Jen Jeavons’ presentation but she might benefited from her advice on “cognitive load”. There’s quite a lot to take in on the Fundraising Directory homepage and the entry points are slightly challenging. As we said in my in newspaper days, it’s “busy”.

Leon Stafford: WordPress as a Static Site Generator

Stafford is the author of the WP Static Site Generator plugin.

WordPress websites are “dynamic” in that they interact with a database to compile their content “on the fly”.

As Stafford says, this means they are resource intensive, available online only and need security from hackers.

His plugin creates a standalone, “static” HTML copy of the WordPress website. “Visually there’s no difference.”

That version is then hosted and served to the public. Staffords says it’s low resource, usable offline and secure by default. “With no database, no PHP, there is very little attack vector left exposed.”

And with no database, free or dirt-cheap hosting options such as Netlify and Amazon S3 become available.

“You can throw crazy amounts of traffic at it and it won’t break a sweat.”

Without PHP though, some third-party integrations are needed to power contact forms, comments, site searches and e-commerce, he says.

WordPress designers/developers can use static versions of websites to archive their body of work online, or to share a version with clients via USB or disc, Stafford says.

One advantage to WordPress, he says, is that other static site generators – such as Hugo – require operation from the command line, a skill most clients will be missing and reluctant to learn.

Andrew Duncan: WooCommerce REST API Integration

As Zell Liew wrote over at SmashingMagazine.com: “An API is an application programming interface. It is a set of rules that allow programs to talk to each other. The developer creates the API on the server and allows the client to talk to it.

“REST determines how the API looks like. It stands for “Representational State Transfer”. It is a set of rules that developers follow when they create their API.”

WordPress has a REST API. So does Woocommerce.

Speaker Andrew Duncan, CEO/owner of Databuzz, says the API will integrate Woo with a business’s other office software such as a CRM and accounting tool (Xero, MYOB etc).

Duncan offers these sort of integrations as a service and in his own business he hooks it up with FileMaker, for which he is a certified developer, and with Xero.

He told his audience he runs a couple of e-shops powered by Woocommerce, which was a big improvement over his old method – a PayPal button. “(But) the missing piece of the puzzle for us is we didn’t use WordPress for our business software.”

Duncan’s talk was quite technical and aimed more at backend developers. But all varieties of WP users will appreciate the potential of APIs, whereby all manner of previously standalone software can become essentially a WordPress or Woocommerce add-on.

“APIs are eating the world,” he said.

WordPress 5.0: Gutenberg Editor, Twenty Nineteen, and more

Dion Hulse, a NSW-based lead developer at WordPress.org, led this discussion just before lunch on the first day.

Hulse speculated that WordPress’s new blocks-based Gutenberg editor – which has page builder-type functionality – might mean the need for “themes” as we know them could disappear and the marketplace will morph into “selling page templates rather than themes”. You see that already actually with third-party page builders such as Oxygen, Elementor and Beaver Builder.

M2CW: It’s interesting watching the rise of page builders in WordPress. Frontend developers who hand-tag designs and layouts in CSS and HTML can tend to look derisively at designers who use WYSIWYG page builders. They’re not real developers, they reckon.

Much of my 20 years as a newspaperman was spent in news design. Early on, we used meta-tags within publishing software called ATEX to lay out pages. You could control elements including font, face, size, leading, kerning, margin padding, and even absolute positioning. Sound familiar? It was area markup, just like CSS and HTML, except the area was a tabloid printed page not a browser window. Later, with software advances, we started to use drop’n’drag editors such as QuarkExpress and InDesign. Now, all news pages are laid out this way and the idea that you would mark up a page with tags would seem strange. Not one person thinks production journalists who lay out pages via drop’n’drag software aren’t “real” news designers. It makes me wonder what the future holds for CSS developers.

Dale Reardon: My Experience Building and Operating an online community and social media platform on WordPress for the disability sector

Dale Reardon is the founder of MyDisabilityMatters.club, a start-up social network for the Disability Community that runs on WordPress with a forum.

Reardon, who is blind, says they have more than 5000 users worldwide. He said 20 per cent of the world had a disability, including “invisible” types such as anxiety and depression.

He said CAPTCHA tests were a problem for screen readers, as were PDF files and Flash-based websites, which were still prevalent in Europe.

He also cautioned about JavaScript. “The more JavaScript you use on your page, the more problems you have.” (Interestingly, in late 2015, WordPress head honcho Matt Mullenweg told the WordPress Community to “learn JavaScript, deeply”. The new Gutenberg editor has a heavy reliance on JavaScript.)

MDM started with BuddyPress forum, then switched to social networking plugin PeepSo, but is now moving back to BuddyPress because “approaching 5000 members caused serious performance and stability issues with PeepSo, despite premium hosting (Kinsta)”.

Reardon wasn’t the only presenter to flag speed and reliability issues with more complicated and content-heavy WordPress sites, especially when combined with high traffic. Many calls to the database at the same time and WP seems to struggle without some backend and server optimisations. As part of his set-up, Readon utilises “object caching”, which he said makes his site much faster. Other speakers mentioned this as well.

Anyway, WordPress has an accessibility team, which Reardon says was one reason he chose it. (WordPress accessibility team leader Rian Rietveld quit in October due to what she said were political complications and problems working on Gutenberg accessibility. Rietveld also took a parting shot at WordPress supremo Mullenweg. “Please take better care of your community, because WordPress is nothing without it,” she told Mullenweg, among other things.)

Facebook, meanwhile, only had three people on its accessibility team, Reardon said, which indicated it didn’t prioritise usability for people with disabilities.

He also said Facebook was complicated and changed its layout frequently, which was bad for screen-reader users who get thrown when features move in-between visits.

M2CW: I realise we live in a Minimum Viable Product world, but understand that WordPress out-of-the-box will likely struggle when your website gets big and busy and you’ll then have invest in some optimisations. Otherwise, at some point your site will struggle or crash and you’ll lose users/customers, and money.

Website and other app accessibility seems like a huge sleeper issue. For example, the well-publicised diabetes pandemic will mean an explosion in the number of people with eyesight issues. Commercial imperatives will force companies to optimise their websites for those with vision impairment from diabetes or lose them as customers/users.

As we live more and more of our lives in the digital world, the disabled communities will force governments to impose accessibility standards on the web, like those that exist in the physical world (wheelchair ramps etc).

And as advocates say: Good accessibility is also good user experience for those without disabilities. You can’t lose.

Tony Cosentino: Podcasting with WordPress

“You all have great stories to tell. Each and every person here has got their own cool stories,” postcasting and WordPress guru Tony Cosentino told his audience.

“In the next couple of years I believe that audio is going to be quite prolific because of all the audio devices that are now available.”

He mentioned Google Home, Apple HomePod, Alexa.

“The more audio content you can have happening now, in the future when audio gets even more mainstream than it is right now, you’re already positioned to audio.”

When Cosentino was asked why audio over video he called for a show of hands of who had watched video that day. Only two hands were raised. When he asked who had listened to a podcast, over half the audience shot up their hand.

“YouTube is sort of a relationship but it’s different from having someone in your head when you’ve got headphones on, or driving, or in the kitchen. It’s almost like a conversation with you. It goes deeper, I think.”

When asked how long a podcast episode should be he said 40 minutes seemed to be the “sweet spot”.

“But I tend to base it on the person.

“If you’ve got a great podcast you can talk for an hour and get away with it.”

Cosentino’s presentation covered 10 steps to podcasting with WordPress, including all the hardware, software and platforms required. He’s done a great job and written a blog post at his website that covers his talk, so I won’t steal his thunder here. Head over to https://tonycosentino.com/tcs-009-how-to-podcast-with-wordpress/ for all the advice and links.

Ben McAdam: Know Your Numbers, Increase Your Profits, And Stress Less

“Virtual CFO” Ben McAdam was one of a few speakers to reference Tim Ferris’s self-help bestseller, The 4-Hour Workweek, which emphasises processes and automation.

What’s a virtual chief financial officer? It’s “like an accountant that helps business owners to understand their financial numbers and grow their businesses and profits”, McAdam wrote on the WordCamp Brisbane website.

His talk was targeted, I’m assuming, to WordPress agencies (big and small) and businesses running e-shops via WordPress platforms such as WooCommerce.

McAdam said there were five key business numbers to watch:

  • Sales
  • Margins
  • Marketing
  • Profit
  • Cash (flow)

And five ways to increase profit:

  • Review costs
  • Raise prices
  • Increase order size (think cross-selling)
  • Sell again (existing customers are cheaper to market to)
  • Productivity

On productivity, McAdam proposed this framework:

  • Eliminate
  • Automate
  • Delegate
  • Efficiently do-it-yourself

He said prices must be marked to at least three times the cost to deliver (excluding overheads) or a business would struggle. As a basic example, if your e-shop buys a product for $100, sell it for $300.

McAdam stressed the need for business owners to pay themselves a wage for their work, and aim for a 20 per cent annual profit after expenses (including their wage).

He challenged attendees to take action on at least one of the five way to increase profit.

Like podcaster Cosentino, McAdam has published his talk at his website so I won’t steal any more of his thunder either. Check it out at https://benmcadam.me/wcbne/.

MTCW: Like I wrote, Tim Ferriss’s self-help bestseller, The 4-Hour Workweek, came up a few times from different speakers.

Automate … 80/20 rule … Charge more, do less … Outsource … Etc, etc …

But where are all these successful work-grind rejecters? Maybe I’ve missed them because I’m not by a Bali beach at 11.30am on a Tuesday sipping Mai Tais while my team of poorly paid, yet highly competent, freelance workers beaver away with little supervision but much dedication?

What Ferriss did brilliantly, however, was identify a pain point and promise a solution. The nearly 1.5 million dejected drones who bought his book wanted to believe in an escape from their corporate servitude. He offered them hope. A variation on, ‘”How to Own 10 Houses and Say Goodbye to Your Boss Forever”.

The title of Ferriss’s book alone is pure genius. The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich. It hits every mark.

The 4-Hour Workweek shows the power of a problem to solve and a killer headline.

Phillip Johnson: How We Handle 90 Per Cent Of Our Annual Traffic In 5 Mins

You know that feeling when something goes seriously badly wrong at work? Developer Phillip Johnson sure does.

Phillip works for the Bolster agency in Melbourne, which, to quote its website, specialises in “digital, creative and content for the music, events and entertainment industries”.

One of their big gigs is Groovin the Moo, a music festival held annually over three weekends in six regional centres across Australia.

Back in January 2017 after a holiday in India, Phillip lobbed back at the office a couple of days before the main website for that year’s festival’s was set to be propelled at the public.

As is typical for festivals such as Groovin the Moo, the promoters build excitement and anticipation over the line-up of performers and then, when it’s time for the big reveal, a media and marketing blitz creates a stampede of traffic to the website, where can be found all the thrilling (and complex, information architecture-wise) details.

Before that moment, the festival is represented online by just a bare-bones static site with branding and little else.

Now remember, Phillip has been on vacation. “The guy at the time decided, cool, what we’ll do is the client will connect to a load balancer, that load balancer will then have multiple EC2 instances on AWS and those EC2 instances will have an RDS database and have all our uploads going to an S3 bucket.”

QUICK EXPLAINER: Phillip was describing the web server setup for Groovin the Moo on Amazon Web Services – that’s the “AWS” bit.

More decoding for the non-techies:

  • Client: The web browser (Chrome, Firefox etc) on the visitor’s device (desktop, tablet, smartphones) that connects to the website.
  • Load balancer: Distributing incoming network traffic across a group of backend servers.
  • EC2: Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud – virtual servers in the cloud referred to as “instances”.
  • RDS: Amazon Relational Database Service – to set up, operate, and scale a relational database in the cloud.
  • S3: Amazon cloud storage service.

Also, keep reading and he’ll mention “SQL” – that’s a programming language for storing, manipulating and retrieving data in databases.

Phillip said: “Fortunately, before any of these sites go live it’s usually got a static web page, so we had just hosted that in an S3 bucket and our plan for the launch was we would have the load balancer point to the one EC2 instance that’s got the static page and then we’ll just switch it over, point to the multiple instances and there’ll be zero downtime.

“At least that was the plan,” he said, ominously.

At 8am on launch day, they “flick the switch” to the superduper important main website and … and … and … a weird pic of a butterfly appears where their website should be.

“We had an influx of 16,500 users between the hours of 8am and 9am. Previously there was maybe 300 users on the site. So we had gone through and built a site that couldn’t handle the traffic that we’ve got.”

Crickey! What went wrong?.

Bolster had built the project with ease-of-use for the owners as a priority, whereby the festival organisers could “enter the content once and reuse it across the site”.

To this end, a lot of custom post types and Advanced Custom Fields relationships were deployed.

“This was actually our downfall.

“Because we had created this really complex SQL setup when people went to visit the site there was far too many SQL queries and the CPU couldn’t handle it and it crashed.

“We tried to be quite simple for the client and it caused a lot of problems.”

But they nutted out a solution. “We had to spend a couple of days optimising these queries … we had to spin up larger EC2 instances so they could handle the CPU and then essentially wait until the traffic died down on the site so we could actually launch it and cache the page.”

Phew! Festival saved.

Bolster remained keen on the enter-once approach, though, so Phillip “spent pretty much the next year going through all our touring sites and our festival sites taking a look at how they were built and what we could do better”.

His solution – object-oriented programming and model–view–controller.

A little web-searching informed your intrepid writer that OOP was “organised around objects rather than ‘actions’ and data rather than logic”.

As for MVC, it’s “a methodology or design pattern for successfully and efficiently relating the user interface to underlying data models”.

Phillip said: “You essentially split out the logic so you’ve got your styles in one section, your HTML markup in one section, you set up your models, which handles the data between the database and then you’ve got a controller which just says, ‘Cool, get this data, put it on this page’.” The programmers in the audience nodded knowingly.

Bolster also decided to change the way they deployed sites, enlisting Roots.io and its stack of open-source tools and resources for WordPress development .

According to the Roots.io website, these tools include:

  • Trellis – “WordPress server running all the software you need configured according to the best practices.”
  • Bedrock – “WordPress boilerplate with modern development tools, easier configuration, and an improved folder structure.”
  • Sage – “WordPress starter theme with a modern development workflow.”

Phillip said: “Trellis uses Ansible playbooks to essentially allow you to provision all of your servers and deploy all the code all through the command line (rather than a user interface).

“So, all I need to do now when I want to go through and set up a server, I jump on to Digital Ocean (which is similar to AWS), spin up a new clean instance, make sure my SSH key’s in there and, then, one command and it goes through, installs SQL, the right version of PHP.

“And then if I need to go from staging to development I just change one line of code.”

Also in the Bolster development toolkit are Timber and its template engine, Twig.

From the Timber website: “With Timber you manage your theme in PHP and Twig (HTML) files. This separates the logic (getting stuff from WordPress) from presentation (adding tags, classes, etc.) — just like Rails, Django, Node and other platforms.”

Phillip said about Timber: “It’s already got the concept of MVC built into it.”

Timber says on its website, “WordPress is awesome, but the loop isn’t”. WordPress makes extensive use of the PHP ‘while loop’ command, which executes a block of code as long as the specified condition is true.

Showing the WordPress Index.php file in a Timber/Twig setup as an example, Phillip said: “It’s very similar to the original Index.php but you don’t have to run through ‘while loops’, you’re not trying to query the database from your theme file.

“The other advantages with Timber is you’ve got these caches.”

The folk at WebsiteOptimization.com have a good explanation of caching: “Caching is the temporary storage of frequently accessed data in higher speed media … for more efficient retrieval. Web caching stores frequently used objects closer to the client through browser, proxy, or server caches. By storing ‘fresh’ objects closer to your users, you avoid round trips to the origin server, reducing bandwidth consumption, server load, and most importantly, latency.”

Phillip said that Timber facilitated three forms of caching:

  • Partial
  • Page
  • Transient

“Now this is a good start and if I’d used any of these three caching methods within Groovin the Moo we might not have crashed.”

But he opted to kick it up a little further, with “object caching”, which is explained over at the WP Engine website as “a different type of caching – instead of caching pages and resources like images, or stylesheets, it caches repeated query results. Queries are requests for data from the database on a site.”

Phillip said: “We ended up going down the route of using an object cache and because I’d gone through and created all these classes with all my post types, I created an object cache, all those variables that I had set in in the functions were now cached.

“So any time an artist was called, it loaded once, it cached it, and then it served the cache
file for every other time that people access the information.

“The advantage of that then is that you’re not hitting the database, which means that all the
problems we had Groovin the Moo were resolved.”

Phillip tested his new processes on last year’s Spilt Milk festival website, which, unplanned, was stuck on the smallest AWS account available.

In the hour from 7am on launch day the Spilt Milk site had no users. At 8am it roared up to 5500 visitors and sat between 30-40 per cent of the allowed CPU for most of the day.

“Basically, throughout the entire day we had 60,000 users. I was running a full festival website on a five dollar-a-month instance.”

M2CW: Phillip’s talk is the reminder that WordPress is a broad church, and there exists quite a gulf between the Divi-theme-installer-type developer who hosts customers’ sites on GoDaddy shared servers, and hard-core programmers who are verging into DevOps.

EverTechnology recorded all the presentations, which attendees were told would be posted ASAP at WordPress.TV, with slides – depending on the co-operation of the speakers.

But until then, below is my take on the sessions I attended.

Case study: Big benefits flow from PR

FREE publicity in the media can have a striking impact upon your business’s sales, and I witnessed a dramatic example of this early in my journalism career.

Actually, I caused it.

Twenty-five years ago I was a cub reporter at the Daily Mercury newspaper in Mackay in tropical North Queensland, a few months out of university and already a few hundred “yarns” into my cadetship. You pump them out in the provinces!

It was a Friday and the chief-of-staff had given me my usual five stories to write, one of which was about a plant nursery owner at Mackay’s northern beaches who had started selling something called a ‘neem tree’ from India, which he said repelled mosquitoes and sandflies.

At the time, at least in Mackay where I was born and raised, nobody had really heard of the neem. I suppose the chief reckoned readers might be keen to learn more about a tree that could fend off the swarms of airborne attackers that bedevilled our backyard barbecues and deck dinners in the tropics.

Interview, article, photo

Anyhoo, I interviewed the nurseryman over the phone and wrote the story, which ran with a pic on Page 3 the next day, a Saturday.

And I didn’t think any more of it.

A few months later my older brother, Anthony, held a party in the backyard of our family home and I was introduced to one of the guests.

“Actually, we’ve spoken on the phone,” he said. “You wrote up an article with me about neem trees.”

It was the nurseryman.

“Oh yeah, I remember,’ I said. “How did it all go?”

“Pretty incredible actually,” he said.

“The day the paper came out, we had 30 people come just to buy the neem.

“It’s gone so well, that’s all I sell now – just neem trees.”

That was the first time I’d noticed a news article I’d written for the newspaper having a beneficial commercial impact for the subject.

In this case, there was the immediate effect of 30 extra sales in a day, and the lasting kick-on benefits were such that the nursery owner re-organised his business to take advantage.

Reasons for success

Let’s examine why it worked so well for him, for those thinking of doing some of their own PR.

  • It was “earned media”, meaning it was in the editorial part of the paper and not a paid advertisement. It’s less likely to be ignored like an ad, and more likely to be trusted given it’s been vetted by journalists and no money has changed hands.
  • Saturday’s paper has the biggest readership of the week.
  • It was genuinely newsworthy. We’re not talking Watergate here but it was fresh and potentially solved a real problem for readers – that being, annoying and painful biting bugs.
  • The article appeared on Page 3, the second-best position in a newspaper after the Front Page. This boosted its ability to be noticed.
  • A photo ran with the article. An image helps to grab readers’ attention.

Takeaway lessons

  1. The overarching point to remember when dealing with the media about free publicity is that they hold all the power and they call the shots. A journalist cares not a scrap about delivering you a commercial outcome. They only care about serving their reader. If you happen to benefit coincidentally, that’s OK, but on a list of their top 1000 priorities, aiding your sales and marketing efforts comes in at a solid 1001.
  2. You must have a genuine news angle. In the neem tree example, the novelty and potential usefulness made it newsworthy. This not only got it in the paper, but on Page 3, and with a photo. This is not a paid ad where you get to sprout your marketing messages. Something about your product, service or company must be unusual, interesting, important, noteworthy or educational.
  3. Do all the work for the journalist. Write a thorough press release so that the journo doesn’t have to chase any of the basics. Include contact information for you and any sources. It must read like a proper news article – don’t fill it with blatant self-promotion and marketing guff.
  4. If targeting print media, send a photo in with your press release. As mentioned above, images attract eyeballs. Even if they don’t like your pic, it puts the idea in their head and they may send their own staff snapper, which is an even better result.
  5. On making contact, clearly, simply and concisely tell the journo why your story idea is of benefit/interest to their audience.

Don’t be like this lady, who sent me this email:

“I’m the owner of an Italian restaurant in Hamilton, Brisbane QLD, and I’m writing to you because I would like to if [sic] you would consider writing an article about us.

“Look forward to hearing back from you soon
Kind regards …”

She failed to mention how she was offering me something of value to my readers, and it looked like I would be using my precious time to write about her business so she could sell more food and drink. Zilch for my readers, nothing for me except unpaid effort, and money for her. That’s a ‘pass’, I’m afraid!

In summary

Coverage in the news media is great for business. It can help put your name/product/service front of mind, and it can even lead to more immediate sales.

Think about who your customers are, figure out which media they consume, and then offer the media outlet a content idea (featuring you) that will appeal to their audience. Make it easy for the journalist – don’t give them work and problems.

Persist, even if you get a few knock-backs to start. The benefits can be substantial.

Lessons for web industry in newspapers’ demise

Death-of-newspapers-gravestone-3THE decline of newspapers sounds a clear warning to the digital industry – favour style over substance and you will pay a heavy toll.

In newspapers’ case, the price has been a terrifying descent, which is gathering pace.

For the web industry, the result will not be a fall but rather a stagnation, destined never to reach its true potential through routinely delivering ingrained mediocrity to customers.

At least, that’s the best outcome for those profiting from the status quo.

But there is another outcome – a survival-of-the-fittest revolution, and then regeneration.

When clear-sighted agencies embrace a “content-first” approach, irrelevancy will result for stubborn old-schoolers who cling to the notion that it’s colour swirls, fonts and jQuery scripts that attract, compel and propel visitors.

That, by far, is the best outcome for customers.

Bigger, but somehow so much smaller

I started my 20-year newspaper career as a cub reporter on The Daily Mercury in Mackay, Australia.

The Queensland coastal town had a population of about 70,000 then, and the Mercury’s circulation was more than 17,000 a day.

Now, the population’s ballooned to well over 100,000 thanks to a coal mining boom, but the Mercury’s circulation has plummeted to fewer than 11,000 Monday-Friday,

Paper sales have tanked from 17,000 to 11,000 even though tens of thousands more people live in the distribution area.

Why? Because the owners, APN, degraded content to cut costs and maximise profits.

They tried to compensate with slicker design, in the hope that readers wouldn’t notice.

They did notice. In droves.

Nice fonts, shame about the circulation

At all their papers, APN splashed about more colour, refined the modular layout, and A/B tested whether 8.7 point text on 9.3 point leading was easier to read than 8.8 on 9.2.

Nobody cared. They just wanted good content.

APN’s shares have plummeted from more than $5.50 each in 2007 to about $0.60 today. Ask APN’s shareholders what they think about the “profit-maximising” strategy of giving readers less and less quality content, but more and more attractive fonts.

I’m not picking on APN or the Mercury, which my grandfather, Harry Moore, edited in two stints over 20 years, ending in 1949. This scourge of style over substance was, and is, industry-wide.

Newspapers have never looked better while readership figures have never looked uglier.

Tah-dah!

I’ve lost count of the number of newspaper redesigns I’ve worked through, and their hyped-up launches, which were supposed to reverse falling circulations.

Not. A. Single. One. Worked.

Why would they? Why would anybody buy a newspaper because it had changed the headline font, or added some coloured lines between increasingly dull and irrelevant stories.

Mediocrity killed the digital agency

And right there blares the alarm for the web industry, which overwhelmingly is driven by people from a design or technological background, and which routinely treats content as an afterthought.

The warning for them is shrill: Make content the priority, or you’re stuck in mediocrity, and headed for redundancy.

The digital industry makes products to be consumed by an audience. That puts it in the media and entertainment biz, which, like it or not, stands or falls on its content. That is immutable.

I don’t know much about content …

Newspapers ran into trouble when journalists, the content providers, lost control. Accountants and advertising execs, who knew nothing of the value of content, were handed the reins and galloped straight towards calamity.

Relearn the lesson and heed the warning: The dominant influence in a media and entertainment business must be the content providers. That has never been the case with the web, but it’s time for it to grow up as it emerges from its pioneering phase, where its shortcomings, thus far, have been forgiven given its immaturity.

Coming soon, terrible movies made by set designers

OK, let’s switch industries, and consider another media, Hollywood. Can you imagine if it were run by set designers, and all they cared about was how the sets looked? The world would be subjected to a pile of stunningly set cinema stinkers, and people would stop going to the movies.

It seems ludicrous to make that analogy, but isn’t that the current set-up of the web industry, which I argue is equally inappropriate and untenable?

You charge $3000. They charge $300. Why?

In my view, a content-first mentality has become a matter of survival. These days the radio is blaring with ads for $300 websites (I checked them out – they *look* pretty slick) and Freelancer.com et al are equally cheap.

Face it, HTML, PHP and JavaScript are true international languages. They function the same whether they are written in Sydney, New York, Manilla, or Bangalore.

But a freelance copywriter in Caracas charging $8 an hour cannot write effectively for a Sydney audience. They do more harm than good.

Compelling, professional content that achieves its goals can be the point of difference, which attracts a premium price.

The proof is in the do-overs

Not convinced? If you’re a digital agency and you think the status quo is working fine ask yourself these questions: “How much of our new business is people wanting their existing site redone?” and “How many of our sites have been redone by somebody else?”

Do the answers make you squirm?

But I’m an electrician – how do I write a website?

It is no longer OK to throw the responsibility for content back to the client. They are stunningly ill-equipped to produce it themselves to the required standard, or to find somebody competent who can.

And the in-house SEO team is also a poor option. Just because you can operate keyword research software does not qualify you to write content that meets the needs of visitors, pleases an increasingly demanding Google, or that will be shared on social networks.

Hi, I’m a digital agency and I’m all about the content

What I’m suggesting is that digital agencies need to recruit and align themselves with content specialists to deliver a genuine results-based solution for clients.

The first words to a new client should be: “Let’s get your content sorted”, and then all design and function considerations should support this.

Just what sort of show are you running?

At the very least, much more needs to be done to eradicate the disgraceful amount of spelling, grammatical, punctuation, and typing errors that litter poor businesses’ web presences.

No self-respecting print design agency would publish as many errors in a lifetime as occur in just one shoddily written and edited website.

So why put content first? Because professional poo polisher is not a sustainable business model.

Why journalists make great content strategists

WHEN it comes to web copywriting, and web strategy, usability and content production, it’s impossible to go past a trained and experienced newspaper journalist.

As a communication specialist, a seasoned journo excels at:

  • Writing
  • Interviews
  • Fast Learners
  • Structure
  • Accuracy

Writing

Journalists know how to write. Words (and images) are the tools of their trade. Centuries of professional wisdom are beaten into passed on to newspaper journalists like me as we are belted moulded into shape by grumpy cranky caring and sharing curmudgeons older newsroom colleagues.

Continue Reading Why journalists make great content strategists

Five reasons to use a professional copy editor

IT is a sad reflection of our times that correct grammar and punctuation are often overlooked when creating a brand’s online (and in plenty of cases, offline) identity. But it is true that there is no faster way to render all of your hard work and big bucks spent useless than by incorrectly punctuating your words, or using the wrong words instead of the right words. Here are the five most common language mistakes – and the one way to save yourself and your business brand.

Continue Reading Five reasons to use a professional copy editor