Building a WordPress site that keeps community members updated on breaking news while also offering deeper insights on the happenings around WordPress was Brian Krogsgard’s goal when he launched PostStatus.com. Read how WooCommerce powers his site and whether he used it out-of-the-box or had to do some customizations. We also talk about the importance of building a community with a subscription/membership. Lastly, Brian shares with us what he would like to see in the future in the WooCommerce core.
You can also listen in where Brian joins us on the Do the Woo Podcast: WooCommerce, Shopify and A Lot of Woo with Brian Krogsgard
Bob Dunn: Today we are talking with one of the prominent figures in the WordPress community. One of the main reasons is he keeps those WordPressers who design, develop—and do whatever else they choose to do— informed and updated on the nitty gritty of WordPress and the community. In fact, if you know these names, we might even call our guests the Woodward and Bernstein of WordPress. If you work with WordPress, you need to know Brian Krogsgard, publisher of Post Status. Hey Brian, welcome to the show.
Brian Krogsgard: Hey Bob. Thanks for having me. You’re too kind with your intro.
Bob Dunn: Are you the Woodward and Bernstein of WordPress? What do you think?
Brian Krogsgard: That’s about as high a compliment as someone could pay. I think I have a lot to do before I could live up to something like that.
Bob Dunn: Okay, well I may tweak that. You never know.
Brian Krogsgard: No Watergate.
Bob Dunn: No Watergate. Not yet, right?
I want to break this intro up into a couple of parts. First, I know that Brian has been immersed in WooCommerce in one way or another over time, and I’d love to hear about your background with WooCommerce.
Brian Krogsgard: Sure. I just actually looked up the date, because I’ve been paying attention to WooCommerce since it started and I see now that was almost exactly five years ago. I have been using WooCommerce in some form or fashion, really since just a couple of weeks after they announced the plugin. I was actually actively working on a client website. It was one of my first real websites I built for someone else that was an eCommerce website and I’d started it on Jigoshop. When the WooCommerce came out that they were forking Jigoshop and, more importantly, that Mike and Jay were moving over to the WooThemes team (they were the primary Jigoshop developers), I decided that I was going convert that build that I was working on to Woo Commerce. I had one of the earliest WooCommerce stores, so I’ve been paying attention for a very long time to a pretty remarkable story.
Bob Dunn: Cool, now what I’m wondering is if we knew the domain of that first store, could we use the way back machine and see what it looks like?
Brian Krogsgard: I can shoot you a screen shot. Unfortunately, I think they changed the platforms just this year, but they ran it on WooCommerce for a long time. It was a pretty generic looking site, but I’ll see if I can find you a screenshot of the old one.
Bob Dunn: That’d be fun to share. Very cool. Now that leads us to Post Status. For those people who are not obsessed with WordPress like us and who may not know what the heck Post Status is, tell us in a nutshell how it started and what it provides for the WordPress community.
Brian Krogsgard: Yeah, for a long time I’ve been writing about WordPress and sharing what I learned, and that kind of gradually turned into sharing news about the WordPress world. Just kind of what was going on. That was just a bug that I had, you know? To write about what was happening. The bug to share, Bob.
Bob Dunn: Exactly.
Brian Krogsgard: I do cater more towards what I call a WordPress professional audience. My target reader when I’m writing is someone who makes their living off WordPress in some way or they use WordPress as a primary tool within their business. I consider those people kind of WordPress professionals in one way or the other. When I write, that’s the type of folks that I target. I’ve been writing about WordPress since 2010, Post Status started at the beginning of 2013, and then the going full time on Post Status started at the very end of 2014 but I launched it in January of 2015. Been a year and a half now as full time Post Status so it’s been a lot of fun.
Bob Dunn: Time flies when you’re having fun doesn’t it?
Brian Krogsgard: It does.
Bob Dunn: Well, I definitely am going to ask our listeners to, you know, check out poststatus.com and I’ll remind them again at the end, but let’s dive a little bit into WooCommerce and kind of what this whole podcast is about. Let’s look at the text side first. How does WooCommerce power Post Status?
Brian Krogsgard: WooCommerce is the primary tool on the site. I really only have one product, which is a subscription, but it’s actually broken into a couple of different products between the base level and the secondary level. People can be a member or they can be a patron, which is just a higher level of member. Both of those are just WooCommerce products. I also have more of a hidden WooCommerce product, if you will, that’s for bulk subscribers. When a company essentially manages subscriptions for their employees. If they have like ten or more employees or something, then I’ll provide them a discount for that bulk membership. Then I mentioned just a subscription website. I don’t have downloads, I don’t have physical products, nothing like that. I actually use a combination of Prospress’s subscriptions extentsion which is, I think, the most popular WooCommerce extension and I also use the membership’s extension by SkyVerge. Those two things manage the subscription component as well as the content restriction for those people.
However, most subscribers, once they actually join, they don’t see too much of the website. There are some things, like deals, that are only visible to logged in users, the Notes, which is the newsletter. The primary delivery method is that I automatically assign someone to a members only MailChimp list once they join. Then I deliver most of the content through the email list itself. I manage it through WooCommerce subscriptions and memberships. Those are the primary WooCommerce tools that I’m using these days.
Bob Dunn: Now, as a member, I know I don’t use the Slack channel that you have. I’m sure there are some people out there who are going to say, “What the heck are you even talking about, Bob?” I guess from what I’ve heard from others that that’s kind of another powerful component of your membership. Can you just tell a little bit? First of all maybe describe what Slack is for people who don’t know and then, you know, how it’s worked for you in this whole membership subscription process.
Brian Krogsgard: Yeah, Slack is a really fascinating communications tool that is similar to Skype in a way, except, whereas if people have a Skype account, they have a global account and they make one-to-one connections. If, like me and you, Bob, we’re talking over on Skype right now, Slack is similar to that, except for it’s a team infrastructure. I have a team for Post Status and then I invite individuals. Everyone that joins gets invited to join Slack and then within my Post Status Slack, there are rooms. It has the effect much as a forum would except for it’s live communication, whereas a forum is a monitored communication. You have to go check and see what’s there or you get email notifications about it or something. Whereas mine is much more of a water cooler environment for members.
It’s certainly, along with the newsletter, one of the primary draws to the Post Status club. A lot of people make their living with WordPress, working from home or working for themselves. One of the things that you struggle with if you’re a remote worker, work from home is sometimes just getting that community environment which you might otherwise get out of an office environment. You know you don’t go to lunch with people and have tacos and that kind of stuff, so we chat in Slack and it’s typically WordPress-related. We’ll talk about stories I’ve written or stories I haven’t written. There’s eCommerce-specific channels, there’s business specific channels, there’s development specific channels. Each one of them kind of has their own feel and group of regulars, even. The Slack channel as a whole is a huge draw for people. It was pretty accidental. It wasn’t in my original plan of benefits and then I polled members to see if they’d be interested in it. About half the members said they would be, but now it’s a pretty active channel. Almost all the members are in there and I would say a good percentage of members are active during any period.
Bob Dunn: Yeah, that’s cool. You probably spend a little bit of time each day on Slack, I imagine.
Brian Krogsgard: Oh yeah, I mean just maintaining the conversational flow and keeping people on topic. There’s a little bit of moderation that’s required sometimes. Then also, just the fact that I’m available to every one of my customers at pretty much any hour through Slack, any given day could include a couple of dozen conversations within Slack. I really have to be careful with how much of my time I allow to go towards that because I’ve made myself quite accessible to my customers through it, which is good and bad. It’s good for being accessible, but it’s bad for being productive.
Bob Dunn: Really, and having a life right?
Brian Krogsgard: Yeah.
Bob Dunn: Now, this kind of segues into it because, I mean, Slack pretty much represents this. Now with a site like yours, relationships and community are huge when it comes to your success. I know that having tried membership sites myself before, how important it is. Any words of wisdom that you can share with people as far as, you know, building relationship, building community, the importance of it with a site like yours?
Brian Krogsgard: Yeah, I mean I think the biggest thing is just to be patient as you build relationships, and build the relationships for the sake of the relationship. If there’s some additional benefit out of it down the road, then that’s great. I was really seeking to just get to know people and get to understand them and then when it came time to decide whether Post Status was something I could do full-time, it turned out that a lot of those people that I’d made relationships with, they were the ones that were there ready to support it early on and be the people that helped give me the confidence to go full-time with it.
I don’t think we should enter our relationships expecting anything, but I do think that if we invest in other people and try and help other people, or it could be something as simple as just offering a compliment to something someone’s done. They remember that and, for me, when it came to trying to build something, a lot of those relationships really came back and paid significant dividends that I was incredibly thankful for. Sincerity goes a long way and I think if we could all do that a little bit more, we’d be happier and probably more successful.
Bob Dunn: Excellent advice. I know that I kind of come from the age of networking, Chamber of Commerce, those kinds of events and stuff. I always used to tell people, the best way to go to a networking event is never expect anything. Don’t have any expectations on you. Just go there, enjoy yourself, meet people. I said, likely that’s when stuff’s going to happen and it’s going to be in all different ways. If you go there with an agenda and you’re like, “Okay, I’ve got to meet so-and-so, I’ve got to talk to them about this, I’ve got to do this, I gotta pitch exact xx number of people.” That’s what’s crazy in the Chamber of Commerce meetings. They would do that, you know? It’s like everybody shoving each other’s business cards around and stuff. I told them, “Hey, just relax. Enjoy it.” You’ll get a heck of a lot more out of it than that. It makes total sense online as well.
Brian Krogsgard: Yeah, it’s funny how those older methods of networking and stuff through Chamber of Commerce meetings, not that those don’t exist anymore, but most of the etiquette has transferred well into the world of online networking through Twitter, Facebook, contact forms, forums, whatever it is. Just going in and communicating clearly and, like you said, not expecting anything out of it, not shoving your business card down someone’s throat. That’s the best way to get somewhere. Totally agree with that. I love that comparison to the Chambers of Commerce.
Bob Dunn: Like I said, I sat on boards, I was totally involved with a lot of Chambers of Commerce over the twenty years we had our other business. I saw a lot of things and I think that’s why, I’m not sure if the Chambers are changing with the times and I’d be interested to see if they are actually adjusting more to this social, casual rather than these formal networking type things. Anyway, that’s another whole podcast there.
Now, back a little bit to the technical side of things again. When you were actually creating Post Status, and you started incorporating WooCommerce into it, did it work mostly out of the box for you? Did you find that you had to do some customization for specific needs?
Brian Krogsgard: I certainly did customization, but you don’t always have to. For me, it was less about adding features than it was about removing features that I don’t need.
Bob Dunn: Interesting.
Brian Krogsgard: I have a single product, basically. I really don’t need a product page or a product archive page. I don’t have shipping. I really handle tax on the back end, not on the sales end. A lot of the things that WooCommerce is capable of, I didn’t really want it to be doing. Also, I didn’t really want it to be showing. Most of my customizations were around what the URLs look like that are for things like the product pages, like removing the tabbed interface for the extended description and the reviews and all these things that make a lot more sense when you have a big inventory and you have a listing of products and you want people searching related products and all this stuff that exists on a default view within WooCommerce. I was trying to simplify that so that I had my own landing pages where I give a big pitch for my product and then I just have a button that says “Join.” For me, it was typically about removing stuff, preventing people from going to unwanted landing pages and trying to minimize the interface rather than get more out of WooCommerce.
WooCommerce is pretty powerful out of the box. That was the biggest customization I would say that I did, was just trying to simplify the entire interface and make it fit my needs as a subscription product and not a physical or downloadable product, or not a big inventory. The only other thing where I really did much was in that sense of managing subscription products. There’s some differences in the way that you do order processing, because it’s not like you make an order and then it’s in the warehouse and then you do a confirmation when it ships. That’s multi-step. Mine, once someone gives me money, they’re a member. It’s done. The order is complete. I made customizations like automatically making those orders show as complete within the admin, automatically subscribing someone to the MailChimp list. Automatically not based on a little check mark in the bottom of the checkout because it’s a core component of the product, to be subscribed to MailChimp.
Little things like that were really all I had to do in addition to changing some of those views. It was because I was using WooCommerce in a simpler fashion than it’s prepared to be right out of the box. For me, it was much more about how easily can I remove these things than how hard will it be to add these things?
Bob Dunn: For a lot of people it is. It’s about simplifying. You’re lucky because you’re a developer at heart so you know how to do all of that stuff yourself. I’m like listening to it all and I’m like, “Okay now what plugins and extensions would do all that?” That’s my route because the code frightens me and I tend to stay away from it.
Brian Krogsgard: Even for someone with development experience, fortunately, WooCommerce is flexible for developers. That’s got benefits down the line. It’s flexible for me. With relatively few lines of code I can go in and rip out chunks of WooCommerce and what not. Then, also, people that are developing extensions, I think that’s part of why the WooCommerce extension ecosystem is so large, because developers can relatively quickly either remove or add functionality that’s beneficial to site owners like yourself that are seeking plugins to achieve the functionality that they want. The flexibility of WooCommerce’s code base really makes that possible.
Bob Dunn: This next question kind of goes perfectly along with that. Now you’ve been working with WooCommerce since the beginning. In fact, I think when I look back it was like, “Yeah, I remember when it first came out. I started playing around with it and stuff.” Can you think of one thing that is still missing and you hope is in the roadmap for the future WooCommerce? Whether it’s something built into core or an extension?
Brian Krogsgard: Probably a whole lot of things.
Bob Dunn: Yeah, what’s one that just drives you nuts. Not drives you nuts, but time and time again you think, “Oh man. One of these days this has got to happen.”
Brian Krogsgard: Sure. I’ll go two different routes if you will let me—one thing in two directions. I think the most important for WooCommerce’s long term success is a hosted option that helps take care of some of these really complicated decisions of installing WooCommerce and then installing extensions and buying extensions. You end up with this package of half a dozen extensions where a lot of times you really need a consultant even though you’re not doing a lot of code, you’re just putting your store together. It still takes maybe fifteen, twenty hours of solid work of someone knowledgeable to take the information of what does this store need to be, and then configuring the store, the extensions, and identifying the right extensions within the ecosystem to achieve the functionality, getting it set up to go, and that’s before you add your first product. I would say that the new store process is still way too difficult and I think that’s where some other hosted options have a lot of advantages. I’d love to see more work being done there and I know Automattic, as your listeners know, I know Automattic understands that and is probably going to be doing a lot more work to improve that process.
On another side, just my personal experiences, my biggest beef is with regards to emails and onboarding. The default emails, I think, are lacking some. They’re also sent by WordPress and I’d like it to be a little easier to make the emails fit better with my marketing emails and my newsletter emails, rather than the ones that WordPress sends by default. You can adjust the content on those, but I’d really like to just totally destroy the existing emails and really create a better experience. All the way from, “Hey, thanks for your order. Here’s your receipt, here’s your first steps,” and all this stuff.
One of the bad things about Post Status right now, because I haven’t spent enough time on this, is you know, a new member gets three or four emails. They’re kind of disjointed, they really don’t offer enough information. It’s not as welcoming as it should be. I really think we should put our marketing hats on a little better and simplify the emails that we send and really enable store owners to make those email experiences more rich. Right now, I think they’re really providing kind of the bare minimum. I think we could just do a little better. I don’t know exactly how to fix that for the whole world, but I certainly know in terms of Post Status I could improve that process.
Bob Dunn: Yeah, I’m with you on that one because I get that from a lot of people that come to me. They’re just very frustrated with the default emails that the Commerce prints out and the little control they have over it. They can add this extension, this extension, but like you said, it’d be nice if it was a little bit more seamless. Especially for the new user. Those have been excellent answers so far and I’m sure I missed a few things and you may have more words of wisdom to share with our listeners around either WooCommerce or something about memberships or community. What insights can Brian, a.k.a. Woodward and Bernstein share with us?
Brian Krogsgard: You know I think the biggest thing would be—for new store owners, especially— it would just be to stick with it and realize that eCommerce is pretty difficult and don’t think it’s going to be an overnight success. Think of it like you’re doing a retail store. What if this was brick and mortar? You would expect a pretty long road, a lot of preparation, a lot of work to get it going. Even though this is an online adventure, there’s a lot of components, but it’s not an unreachable destination. It’s something that you can do, but you got to go in prepared, you got to put the time in. Don’t feel like you have to do everything at once. You can make it better over time. There’s a lot of components from getting set up, to marketing, to the actual product itself, making sure it’s ready to go, whether that’s a physical or a digital product.
In the end there’s a huge reward, which is that you’ve diversified your business if you otherwise have an offline business. You have an online business, you’re much more empowered. Maybe you’re doing this on the side. You’re really opening yourself up to a world of possibilities where you have a global potential market, not just the one in your back yard or with the people that you know. You have all these opportunities and WooCommerce is an amazing platform in the sense that it integrates with WordPress, which is already the best content management system that you can work with. You don’t have to have two disparate systems and it really just syncs well with that. It really empowers people and it’s your own thing because it’s self-hosted. You own every component of that, so don’t get discouraged. Fight the good fight and I think if you give it enough time and energy and elbow grease, then you’ll start seeing those rewards.
Bob Dunn: Cool. Words of wisdom from Brian. You have lived it. Now I have a few more questions here. I always ask every guest a little bit more when I ask them to put their online shopping hat on.
Brian Krogsgard: Sounds good.
Bob Dunn: Okay. Now this is one, it’s always interesting asking this. What would you never buy online? I mean there’s a lot of stuff you can get online and I’ve heard all sorts of answers on this one. Is there anything or hey you’ll just buy anything online that’s available?
Brian Krogsgard: You know, I would buy pretty much anything online. However, if I had to name one I would say my house. I think I would prefer to see what I’m going to get if I’m buying a house. I don’t know if anybody is selling houses online yet, but that’s one of those that I want to have a little more interaction with. That’s the best I could do because I’m the type of person that I would totally buy my groceries and everything that I wear, all that kind of stuff online. No problem.
Bob Dunn: That’s what I hear quite a bit of. There’s a few, but a house would definitely … Sight unseen, “Oh, whoa. I didn’t see that in the pictures. You left that room out, that’s interesting.”
Brian Krogsgard: I would do most of my research online.
Bob Dunn: Yeah, that would be good. Now, if you are online shopping, try to remove your WordPress developer hat and all those different other things that you wear all the time,. Is there something that you always find on online stores time and time again that just frustrate the heck out of you?
Brian Krogsgard: There’s two things. One, I think that everybody’s kind of on board with this, but mobile checkout is pretty important. For several years there, even as responsive design was more and more the thing to do, a lot of stores were lagging. Now I think that’s less of a problem. Pretty much everybody, even in eCommerce is on board and making the investment into a good mobile checkout. eCommerce did lag the rest of the web, I think, in terms of a great mobile experience. That would’ve been one. Now, I would say the biggest thing I see on eCommerce websites is too much stuff, like on the homepage. There’s not simplified cause to action.
I’d like to see eCommerce that does more about telling the story of individual products, rather than just trying to list every single thing you can buy within some link on the homepage. I don’t think most stores that aren’t like Amazon, I don’t think people are going there because they just want to see your entire inventory. Amazon is just a different beast and I think too many people try to mimic the way you land on Amazon and see a hundred different directions you can go with their stores that are much more niche. I’d rather see people tell richer stories to encourage why someone needs to buy from you and not someone else. You have to differentiate your product because when you’re selling something online, there’s probably a lot of people that offer the exact same product that you offer and they’re probably a lot bigger than you. You have to say why they need to buy it from you.
An example I would use would be, say it’s exercise equipment. Like, I don’t know. Like a yoga mat. Why should someone buy your yoga mat and not a yoga mat off Amazon or from Costco or something? You have to tell the story of your yoga mat and really set yourself apart. I think the people that have great stories to go along with their products are the ones that are seeing more success than people that are just not really differentiating from the big wholesalers. That would be my number one advice.
Bob Dunn: That’s an excellent point because actually a couple store owners I’ve talked to on past shows, that’s exactly what they’re doing and they’re smaller. They’re smaller than Amazon and they’re telling more of the story around their product. It makes a huge difference and you’re right. Those are the ones that are going to succeed. I don’t know what the stats are, but I can only imagine how many online stores are opening every day.
Brian Krogsgard: A lot, I’m sure.
Bob Dunn: Crazy amount. Now, the last question. If you could start your own online store and time, money, resources, none of that mattered, you retired from Post Status with millions of dollars from all of these WordPress people. You can do what you want, but you just have this desire to sell something online and it doesn’t really matter if it’s huge or not huge. You would like to sell it. Is there anything you can think of?
Brian Krogsgard: You know, I don’t know about a specific product, but I really do have an itch to sell a physical good. I would love to be involved in something where I was part of the manufacturing process, the design process, of creating a really cool product that I was passionate about and then also was able to create this entire marketing experience and purchasing experience and fulfillment experience so that people could buy that online. I think it’d be really fulfilling. I think a lot of people have this desire in their work. In service-based industries, your deliverable is whatever the service was, but there’s something about a physical good that when someone receives, I don’t know. A coffee cup. Whatever it is that you made and you marketed it and you sold and it’s a real thing that someone holds in their hand, I think that is such a cool feeling and I would love to be able to do that one day. I don’t know what it would be or what it would look like or when it would happen, but if I could sell a physical good online someday, that would be a lot of fun.
Bob Dunn: It may just come to you in the middle of the night. You’ll wake up sometime and think, this is it.
Brian Krogsgard: Oh, ideas of what to sell is not the problem. It’s much more about the time and the energy and the focus, because I think focus is important. For a good while, I’ll be focusing of Post Status and trying to make it as good as I can. Some day maybe, if Post Status is humming on all cylinders and I don’t have to be there every hour of the day then maybe a physical product will be in my realm of possibilities.
Bob Dunn: Cool, and if we’re still around here with this podcast, which who knows, then we’ll have the first show with you on there talking about your new product in your new online store.
Brian Krogsgard: Sounds good.
Bob Dunn: Well, if you didn’t know about Brian and Post Status before this show you do now. It’s been an excellent resource and something I would recommend you check out. I’m on Post Status. I don’t go on Slack a lot, I admit, because there’s a lot of developers on there and one thing is they would go, “Oh God. Bob’s here. He’s not going to understand anything we’re talking about.” I know that I look forward to that email I get all the time and I do get some of the insights from both Brian and the WordPress community. Again, thanks, Brian, for taking the time to share all this Woo goodness with us.
Brian Krogsgard: Thanks for having me, Bob. I appreciate it.