Thoughts on WordCamp for Publishers 2018 + WordCamp Niagara 2018

A couple weeks ago I attended two WordCamps back-to-back: WordCamp for Publishers in Chicago, and WordCamp Niagara in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The two WordCamps were catering to very different audiences, but they were both alike in that they focused on smaller niche groups.

Publishers catered to (surprise!) people working with WordPress in the media. Niagara, on the other hand, catered to a crowd of local users.

These smaller camps are great for community-building.

I like these smaller camps because they encourage more connection between attendees. You’re likely to have something in common with the person sitting next to you.

At Publishers, it was that we were trying to solve the same problems with our day-to-day work. At Niagara, it was that we were mostly from the same region.

I left Chicago with lessons from editors and developers that I could apply to my work on the GoDaddy blog. I left Niagara with new connections to local professionals.

I also left with a bunch of additional thoughts and takeaways, summarized after the jump. Let’s go!

Takeaways from WordCamp for Publishers

Media brands are on the hunt for new business models.

Newspapers got their start as heavily opinionated publications funded by political parties. It was a means of pushing their messages to the public.

From the University of Illinois:

The business of newspaper publishing was highly politicized. While modern-day newspapers claim to be impartial sources of fact-based journalism, antebellum newspapers were often explicitly affiliated with a political party, and focused on delivering that party’s point of view.

The bias was eventually replaced — sort of — with journalistic ethics, while the funding for local media moved from politics to business.

Newspapers had the attention, and businesses wanted a piece of that attention. That’s where all the advertising dollars came from.

But — as we all know — that attention has drifted and spread out over the last 20 years. With that drop in attention went the advertising dollars.

Two big revenue streams are the go-to for publishers: paywalls and membership perks.

You either treat the content as the product, charging for access and limiting the amount of content that can be consumed for free. Or you leave the content open, and rely on memberships with additional perks to bring in the revenue.

(Spinning up additional lines of business, like creative services or event series, were also discussed — but not nearly as much.)

On the paywall side: I learned about Pigeon Paywall, a drop-in SaaS solution that plays nicely with WordPress. 

On the membership side: Familiar names were mentioned, like WooCommerce, Restrict Content Pro, and MemberPress.

Coincidentally, Memberful announced their acquisition by Patreon on the first day of the event.

There’s an opportunity for hyper-local journalism. 

Local news suffered the most from the loss of ad dollars. The ones that weren’t shut down were bought out and gutted by big metro-based brands. What remains is an empty shell of local journalism.

Communities suffer from that — even if they don’t realize it.

From TVO:

Research shows that those most engaged in civic life tend to also be the most tapped into local news. It affects education systems, community safety, water quality, and even road repair. If we are not regularly and adequately informed, we lose our ability to hold institutions and officials to account.

There’s a lot of coverage about this from sources around the world: Wired, Financial TimesThe Guardian, The Conversation, Columbia Journalism Review, the Economist, Maclean’s.

In short, the decline in local journalism is bad for democracy and bad for the places in which we live.

But there’s a silver lining.

Centralized media doesn’t have an on-the-ground presence to report on stories at a truly local level. But the technology they use is available to people in local communities.

Coming out of Publishers, one big idea stuck with me: Treat hyper-local media as a small business, and operate like one. Get a domain name, some hosting, and a WordPress site. Run lean. Keep your overhead low.

Create good work for a local audience. Tell the stories and report on the news that matters to that community, the stuff that nobody else is reporting on.

Tap into a mix of government funding and advertiser dollars for revenue. Set up a membership program with subscription pricing, and accept one-off donations. Be a champion of the local community, and give them a reason to want you to succeed.

Experiment with different channels to get your content in front of the right people. Facebook? Start a Facebook group, or become active in an existing one. Instagram? Ride on local hashtags and make new ones a thing. Twitter? Connect with other local media people, and look for opportunities to collaborate on projects.

There’s so much overlap here between hyper-local media and my enthusiasm for supporting local small businesses. I could go on.

Definitely more to come on this over the coming months and years…

Back to WordPress: Scaling and discovery were big.

We’re seeing a resurgence in SEO for media sites as traffic from Facebook faces a steady decline.

Site performance is a huge factor in SEO, so there was a lot of talk about improving page speed and reducing site bloat.

AMP, in particular, was the focus of two back-to-back sessions.

The first session promoted AMP, talking about the dramatic performance improvements that come from adding AMP support to a site. (And, since Google is driving it, the inevitable SEO boost.)

The second session was less generous. Presented from a product management perspective, this session boiled down to AMP being a crutch for shitty ad-heavy websites. Implementing AMP wasn’t a solution; it was a brand-born bandage stealing away control over user experience.

There are valid points to both sides, and it comes down to your priorities and capabilities as an organization.

Rebuilding a site from the ground up might be a simple fix for an indie publisher, but big media entities have lots of moving parts plugged into their systems. AMP is good for that, since it’s a layer on top of the existing site, instead of a complete replacement.

Indie publishers are less likely to have that same complexity. They can act more like a scrappy startup or small business. So if they don’t like AMP, but want to reap the benefits of a leaner site, great — they can build that out.

But I digress.

Would I go to WordCamp for Publishers again?

Absolutely, especially if the suggestion to re-label it as “WordCamp for Publishing” was accepted.

I felt like an outlier at the conference — I’m in marketing, not journalism — but we still operate our blogs like a publisher.

It’d be nice to trade notes with others in a similar situation, or (even better!) with bloggers and brands that are all tackling publishing from different angles.

Takeaways from WordCamp Niagara

This first-ever WordCamp Niagara was a one-day event at Niagara College. Kudos to the organizers for stacking the sessions in a coherent way — each of our presentations built on top of topics that came up earlier.

The most valuable session for me was Eric Nagel’s talk about content monetization.

Eric came at it from the perspective of an affiliate marketer, leading people through the basics (e.g. Amazon Associates program) before ramping up into ad networks and sponsored content.

Affiliate marketing gets a lot of flack for shady tactics that some affiliates use. But affiliate marketing is also one of the strongest revenue sources for publishers.

IMO: Whether or not it’s on the up-and-up comes down to how it’s being done. Pat Flynn, for example, is a prolific affiliate marketer, but he’s not out there trying to swindle anyone. At least not that I’ve seen.

And Eric’s talk, while possibly meandering into some potentially grey areas, was mostly in the same vein as Pat Flynn.

Boiling it down:

Behave like a publication, build an audience, and present that audience with relevant offers from affiliate programs you belong to.

That’s it. It’s a lot like running a blog to promote your business — the only difference is that you’re promoting someone else’s products instead of your own.

“Thinking like a publisher” resonated throughout the day.

In addition to Nick’s talk about monetization, the sessions covered SEO (including voice search); my talk about content planning frameworks; using calls-to-action to drive behaviour, like social sharing; and building smarter processes with a simple combo of contact forms and email.

Would I attend Niagara again?

Absolutely, and not just because I love the region. (And I do love the region — I make sure to swing by Caroline Cellars every time I’m in the area.)

WordCamps are opportunities for affordable education. We need to keep moving these sorts of tech events out of the city and into the places that stand to benefit the most from them. Otherwise we risk “tech” becoming even more elitist and isolationist than it already is.

So yes, I’d attend Niagara again. And I’m excited to see that London, Ontario has a WordCamp in the works. The Peterborough group seems to be humming along, and I hope that they start up a WordCamp of their own someday, too.

P.S. Gutenberg was the quiet elephant in the room.

There was only one talk about Gutenberg during Niagara, and the discussion of it during Publishers was more muted than I expected. (Or maybe I was just in the wrong discussions?)

I’m sure it’ll be a bigger focus next year once WordPress 5.0 pushes it front-and-center.

It’s the big news of 2018 for us who follow WordPress closely, but for the vast majority of users — the DIY’ers, bloggers, et al. — it’s more likely to be the big news of 2019 instead.

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