While Portland was having an out-of-season heatwave this past weekend, I was lucky to jet off to St. Louis, Missouri for their… out-of-season heatwave! But three days of 90-degree weather didn’t matter — because a whole lot of us were in the Washington University air conditioning all weekend (May 12-13) for WordCamp St. Louis, learning and sharing our skills and knowledge. I was there as a speaker and attendee.
This WordCamp was special for a few reasons.
Although it is a smaller WordCamp, they pulled together a great team of organizers and volunteers who worked hard to make this a super valuable WordCamp for everyone – speakers, sponsors and attendees alike. Their love for the community showed in little details that came together to make this event feel very personal.
Everyone involved in a WordCamp volunteers a ton of time and effort to pull off the event, from procuring the venue, to creating the website and print materials, to wrangling in all the speakers and sponsors. Many people also don’t realize that WordCamp speakers are 100% volunteer, just like the rest of the team who put everything together.
As speakers, we spend a long time creating, practicing and perfecting the talks we want to give, in the hopes that attendees will come out inspired, motivated, or with new skills to put toward their careers and hobbies working in the web. Most of us who speak at WordCamps are not professional speakers by far. We are usually anything but! From freelancers to in-house designers, children of organizers, university students to full-time mommy bloggers to Enterprise level developers, hobbyists to complete beginners to core WordPress developers. In short, we speak at WordCamps because we feel passionate about a topic, and passionate about giving back to the WordPress community. Our reward is seeing attendees have “a-ha!” moments in our sessions, asking questions that lead to discussions on topics we’d never considered before, and presenting the work that we’ve dedicated much of our blood sweat and tears to. We do it because we love it. And that’s what makes this community so awesome!
WordCamps usually thank speakers by holding a private speaker/sponsor dinner the night before WordCamp, and many of them also give out gifts – a special “thank you” for contributing. This year I was delighted to be presented with not only a set of custom WC St. Louis Wapuu coasters, but a handwritten thank-you card from the organizers. It’s little personal touches like this that made me really feel welcome this weekend.
The other thing that made this WordCamp so special to me were all of the business-oriented sessions. While WordPress is the string that ties us all together, it’s not ALL we do. There are lots of soft skills, like marketing and business, which we do everyday, that exist completely separate from WordPress. Everyone does things differently, and as business owners with competition, we tend to keep those little success stories and secrets to ourselves. And it’s often those little stories, secrets and experiences that can help us all the most.
This weekend I was treated to many business-oriented sessions that I’ve personally never seen before, and I can’t believe how much I learned, and how inspired I was by all of the speakers. There’s something about hearing the failures and successes of a real team that makes you realize we’re all the same, constantly learning, growing, falling down and getting back up stronger. At my first WordCamp, it seemed like everyone knew each other, and everyone knew more about WordPress than I did. Sometimes we can feel intimidated by the skill and success of our peers, thinking that everyone is better than us, that we don’t have anything to share and we’ll maybe never be that good. It’s a typical Imposter Syndrome feeling – one MANY of us are familiar with. But this weekend featured intimate sessions where speakers shared their secrets of success, stories of failure and new strategies they are excited to try. And judging from the reaction of the audience, we all found it to be super encouraging and inspiring.
In his Saturday talk, The New Rules of Content Marketing, Tyler Kelley of SLAM! Agency gave tips on how to achieve the Holy Grail of marketing: getting the right message, in the right place, to the right person, at the right time. He stressed that engagement is not about marketing products, it’s about building audiences and getting to know your audience. The more you know about them, the more you can use intent-based targeting in your marketing – which is more effective than just targeting on demographics alone. Over all else, knowing their interests, attitudes and opinions will help you build a better product, and market it most effectively to your audience.
On Sunday, Clay Mosley spoke very candidly on the secrets of his success. In his talk, Magic of Recurring Revenue: How I Grew a Business Crazy Fast, Clay revealed how identifying and targeting an underserved niche market led to massive growth and client retention for his agency. He has built a solid business based on recurring revenue alone, offering websites and social media services in a SAAS model. In shifting their focus from sales to retention, Rock City Digital has grown to a team of around 20 people in the span of just two years. He recommends figuring out what’s going to work best for you, and then building your business around what you are most successful at doing. His talk was so popular that it went over by 20 minutes, with everyone in the audience eager to ask questions and learn more about building a successful business. We actually had to be ushered out of the room to the closing remarks!
It’s always exciting to see our friends succeed. And Heather Acton, whom I have known almost since my first WordCamp in 2013, has seen great success building large client sites with her agency Helio Interactive. Part of that success, she said in her talk Improving WordPress Development Efficiency With Your Own Framework, can be attributed to the decision to implement a framework for website development. She realized they were doing the same stuff, over and over, and not enjoying it. And what do developers do when they find themselves doing the same task over and over? They standardize and automate! And that’s just what Heather did after seeing Joshua Giowaya’s modular development talk at a past WordCamp. Since implementing a custom framework which her company reuses and customizes for each website, she’s seen a 25% increase in her company’s efficiency, resulting in much higher profits than ever before. Among the things they include in their framework are Advanced Custom Fields JSON files, which enable them to load reusable components and modular SASS files per project as needed. As the team is no longer thinking in terms of template files, projects have become much easier to estimate and efficiency has skyrocketed.
After Heather had hyped up Joshua Giowaya’s apparently hugely influential talk, we were all left wondering what exactly she learned from him that made such an impression? And as if by magic, in walked Joshua to give the next talk: Legos for Developers – A Modular Approach to WordPress Development, the very same talk that inspired Heather. Nice upsell Heather… nice upsell!
Joshua introduced his tried-and-true system, which involves the use of Atomic design – the methodology of creating discrete, modular, reusable parts to build whole content types. This practice centers around identifying content patterns in your project. This enables you to use the same general SOLUTION, but never in the same way twice, because it is so flexible and customizable. This solution empowers admins and content editors to create complex, relevant, beautiful content, laid out how they want, with little to no developer intervention. So…basically what EVERY content creator wants for their website. And of course, Joshua has a love for Advanced Custom Fields (don’t we all??). But the conversation soon shifted to Gutenberg: how will ACF and Gutenberg co-exist in the future of WordPress? Everyone had a differing opinion, and valuable insights to add to the discussion, but ultimately we all agreed that ACF has its place as a strong, phenomenal GUI for creating and organizing content inputs.
As is the ongoing theme of this year, it remains to be seen how Gutenberg will TRULY affect the WordPress ecosystem, and I predict that it will change and evolve with each new release. The WordPress we know today could be very different in a few years. But, from what I see in the community, we will still be as strong and supportive as ever, empowering others to build and publish content in ever-increasingly complex ways. And communities like St. Louis are the glue that holds everything together.