WordPress Goes to College: A Case Study

Last weekend I had the honor to speak at WordCamp Chicago, an impeccably-run conference focused exclusively on users of WordPress. Seriously, it’s amazing how high quality the programming and organization were, considering the whole thing is run by volunteers.

Of course I learned a ton at the panels I attended, and it was immensely valuable to connect with so many smart and committed developers and webmasters. But all of this made it especially rewarding to share some of my own experience at my talk, “WordPress Goes to College: A Case Study.”

Specifically, the case study was about the WordPress website I recently launched for Erikson Institute, the graduate school where I work. Of course, I had a lot of help, particularly from the developer I was lucky to work with, Joachim Kudish. In fact, he was such a find that Automattic — the company started by the guys who originally built WordPress — snatched him up midway through the build. (While this certainly validated my choice of developer, the timing could’ve been better!)

Higher education websites tend to have a lot of moving parts, so Joey and I had to cook up a lot of interesting customizations, while still being careful to respect the core of WordPress. This is important, because one thing you don’t want is to update your WordPress and find out some of the customizations you built have been overwritten or are incompatible.

After that learning curve, I was eager to share some of the solutions we’d found. Sure, some things we learned may be specific to higher ed, but what I quickly realized as I wrote this talk is that the problems we were solving were applicable to any small organization with limited resources but a business-critical website.

Top Three Takeaways

  1. Work with good people.

    Find a developer you can work with, who not only has a compatible work style but also has a clear vision and excitement for your project.

  2. Free is never free.

    A little money goes a long way, particularly when you’re working with open source products. If your site depends on a particular feature, then it’s worth spending a little cash to get the extra support and customization.

  3. Curation, not automation.

    Think about your content. So much of what makes WordPress great is how easy it is to automate things — just list the last four blog posts, just stick the attached image above the post, etc. What we realized is that most of the important pages on our site needed to be carefully curated. Nothing is set and forget.

    By the way, we also found a great plugin for this, which got a lot of interest at my talk: Zone Manager (aka Zoninator).

    Slides from my talk are below, or you can download the PDF.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *