How Community Drives One Blog Platform’s Success

In the past 10 years, the blogging platform WordPress has become one of the most widely used pieces of open-source software on the internet, but (as in associations) it's the community that has driven its growth.

When Matt Mullenweg of Automattic wrote about WordPress’ 10th anniversary earlier this week, he gave a specific shout-out to the community behind the product he created and helped lead to success.

I see you all over the world now, glowing from screens, bringing people together at meetups and WordCamps — you’re at your best when you do that.

“I see you all over the world now, glowing from screens, bringing people together at meetups and WordCamps — you’re at your best when you do that,” he wrote.

That’s no accident. WordPress, which drives 66 million sites published in more than 120 languages, is an open-source project. While it has leadership in the form of Automattic, Inc., anyone can easily contribute to the project in numerous ways, from designing themes to coding plug-ins to simply speaking up in product forums. While it isn’t a membership-based organization, WordPress does share much common ground with the association world.

Working with the community: One of the key elements for WordPress is its community of users and developers; both groups are important to the growth of the platform. While many people ask for one feature or another online, the secret to keeping things on track, the organization says, is that they take the conversation offline. “When making decisions on how to move forward with future versions of WordPress, we look to engage more of those users who are not so vocal online,” the site says in its philosophy statement. “We do this by meeting and talking to users at WordCamps across the globe, this gives us a better balance of understanding and ultimately allows us to make better decisions for everyone moving forward.” With 207 WordCamps worldwide—including eight holding sessions in June—the organization can help its user base at all levels by building educational options to match their needs.

Sticking to its ideals: While the internet has changed significantly in the years since WordPress came on the scene, the platform has always adapted incrementally, not letting the mission get torn apart by the latest trend. The company admits that it’s not a part of the Silicon Valley culture. “We march a little to our own beat, and sometimes it’s out of sync with Silicon Valley—and that’s been to our advantage and disadvantage,” Automattic CEO Toni Schneider explained in a 2012 interview with AllThingsD. “We don’t get sucked into the latest thing, while some of our competitors are distracted by the latest shiny object. The disadvantage is sometimes we’re against the grain of what everyone else is excited about, and people ask ‘Why don’t you have x yet?’—but we go at our own pace.”

Staying flexible: Marissa Mayer, eat your heart out. WordPress doesn’t require its employees to work in the office;  in fact, many employees largely collaborate online with their audiences. One employee, Scott Berkun, has even  written a book about his experience as part of the telecommuting-friendly workforce. (It comes out this fall.) In a Harvard Business Review blog post on his experience, he notes that the culture of the company plays a large role in its success on this front. “Automattic has many policies designed to empower employees, and remote work is just one of them,” he wrote. “They believe individual workers know best how to be productive and that management’s job is to provide choices and get out of the way.” Though it’s not right for everyone, this approach works well for the open-source community that builds its product—often in places all over the world, at all hours of the day.

Remembering the business model: How does Automattic pay for the not-for-profit portion of its product, Simple: It uses a for-profit offering to drive growth without affecting the open-source product. With giving bloggers an opportunity to jump onto the network without the extra complexity of the self-hosted product, the company serves multiple audiences, including those who need extra infrastructure and those who simply want an easy-to-maintain blog. (Among its customers for the high-infrastructure model? TechCrunch, CNN, and Time magazine.) The freemium model has worked for Automattic, which reported in 2012 that it expected to bring in $45 million in revenue.

So what’s next for WordPress? A little evolution and a lot of mentoring.

“We are constantly moving forward,” the organization writes on its website. “As each release cycle begins and ends ([Version] 3.6 will be here soon, promise!), we always see an ebb and flow in the contributor pool. Part of ensuring the longevity of WordPress means mentoring new contributors, continually bringing new talent and fresh points of view to our family table.”

What advice would you give as WordPress starts its second decade as a blogging platform? Let us know your take in the comments.

A WordCamp, a classroom-style meetup for WordPress professionals, takes place in Vienna, Austria. (photo by Heisenberg Media/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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