Building a local community hub with WordPress: WordCamp Niagara 2019

The following is an abbreviated recap of my session at WordCamp Niagara 2019. Thanks to the organizers for putting on another great WordCamp. Hauling out to Niagara Falls in the autumn is a highlight of my year…!

Local media used to be the hub of our communities. It’s how we kept up with the news and events happening near us.

My first job was delivering newspapers. I was a newspaper courier for the Era Banner in Newmarket, Ontario. This would’ve been the late 90’s.

The paper wasn’t the sparse flyer-packed wrapping that we see today. It was thick and filled with writing from local reporters, editors, and columnists.

Then Facebook happened.

Facebook became our new community hub. It’s where we turned for local news and conversation. And as all that attention moved to the web, to Facebook, our local media languished.

We’ve seen the reckoning of that, over the last few years, as headlines declare that Facebook killed local journalism and they’re now trying to backpedal and support local journalism instead:

What can we do?

In the summer I read Geeks Bearing Gifts. It’s a book by NYU journalism professor Jeff Jarvis. It’s a book about the future of media; about how journalists can persevere through the disruption.

Some choice quotes:

“The news organization of the future should be specialized, expert, collaborative, efficient — and as small as it can be so it is sustainable.”

“The beat reporter gains expertise in a coverage area — a town, a city hall, a cop shop, a federal agency, a field of medicine, a slice of science, an angle of the economy, an underserved community.”

“The beat reporter is accountable to the community she serves and can be held to account […] she is valued on the utility she delivers and the trust she earns.”

— Jeff Jarvis, Geeks Bearing Gifts

Summarizing further:

  • Be collaborative and sustainable
  • Focus on a specific coverage area
  • Earn trust by delivering valuable utility

This is the approach that brought blogging to the forefront in the 2000’s — something I covered during my keynote at WordCamp Rochester. And it’s the same approach that the “influencers” of the 2010’s follow:

  • Sustainable businesses (donations, memberships, merch)
  • Focused coverage (parenting, beauty, food, gaming, fitness)
  • Earned trust through valuable utility (teaching, sharing

Why don’t we embrace that to bring new, local community hubs to life?

We don’t need Facebook

Why do we use Facebook on a local level?

  • Content
    Following news, stories, and conversations around the topics that we care about.
  • Community
    Connecting with other people, online and offline, through groups and in-person events.
  • Commerce
    Finding and reaching local businesses; buying & selling; asking for recommendations.

What can we build?

  • An alternative to Facebook
    Remove our dependency on a central corporation with shifting priorities.
  • Truly local
    Created and managed by people in the local community, whether it’s staff or volunteers.
  • Built on WordPress
    Using the WordPress ecosystem to create a custom solution with minimal code.

This is what I wanted to build:

  • Promote local businesses: I’m an advocate for supporting small, independent businesses and #shoplocal.
  • Work with the community: Join forces with local government, NPOs, other groups with shared goals.
  • Sustainably bootstrapped: Start with donations; grow to include premium upgrades, additional paid services.

My project: Main Street Durham

Main Street Durham is like a “virtual BIA”. The mission is to help local businesses in Durham Region get online, grow, and connect with each other. Businesses sign up for free resources and we’ll showcase them on the site.

It’s also a hyperlocal, online publication. For local residents, Main Street Durham will be a #shoplocal destination.

It’s free to join. Everyone can sign up for free. There’s no registration fee or membership dues; but local businesses do get special recognition/treatment.

Why am I doing this?

It combines everything I’ve done over the last 10+ years into a single project:

  • Helping local small businesses (my favourite clients as a freelancer)
  • Bringing people together (as a community manager and meetup organizer)
  • Building & managing WordPress sites (the bulk of my work)

What’s the pitch for local businesses?

  • We’ll promote them.
    Every business gets a profile on the website; I pick a business to showcase in a weekly, in-depth feature.
  • It’s free, no risk.
    It takes less than a minute to sign up. No fees, no commitments, no risk to try it out.
  • It complements their existing online marketing.
    Links to existing website, social media, etc… doesn’t compete with anything they’re doing.

What’s the pitch for residents/site visitors?

  • Browse local businesses
    It’s a one-stop resource for discovering local businesses in Durham Region.
  • Connect with businesses
    Stay in the loop with updates from business members; ask questions, recommendations.
  • Free membership
    All we need is a valid email address to create their membership account.

How am I building it?

Presence

  • .CA domain via GoDaddy
  • GoDaddy WordPress hosting
  • Microsoft Office 365 from GoDaddy

WordPress theme & plugins

  • GeneratePress Premium
  • Gravity Forms
  • Yoast SEO
  • Advanced Access Control
  • Give
  • Jetpack
  • wpForo

Services

  • GoDaddy Pro
  • Google Analytics
  • Google Search Console
  • Google Tag Manager
  • ActiveCampaign

What’s the flow?

  1. User visits the site
    • Reads posts
    • Browses businesses
    • Subscribes to newsletter > added to ActiveCampaign list
  2. User applies to join
    • Submits registration form
    • Gets WordPress user account
    • Added or updated profile in ActiveCampaign
  3. Create a WordPress account
    • Create a Member or Business account, based on form
    • Gain access to the forum (wpForo)
    • Gain access to members-only content (if a business)
  4. Sync with ActiveCampaign
    • Added to list
    • Tagged based on membership type
    • Sent follow-up “welcome” email appropriate to membership type
  5. Business Q&A for profile
    • If biz, invited to interview
    • Fills out Q&A (Gravity Form)
    • Saves or submits form for review
  6. In-depth interview for article
    • Submitted interview saved as draft post
    • Follow-up questions asked by writer (me!)
    • Post scheduled

What are the first steps?

  1. Create content to bring people in
  2. Invite the first members to get things going
  3. Grow a community to keep people engaged

Step 1: Soft launch with content

  • Start an editorial calendar. Baseline: 1 post per week. Topics: Members-only resources (incentive to join) and interviews (to introduce new members).
  • Set a publication goal. 1 weekly post = 12 posts per quarter.
  • Get a runway going. Have a backlog of ~12 posts in advance.

Step 2: Invite the first members to get things going

  1. Create a landing page answering the “why should I join?” question.
  2. Point them to the members-only content.
  3. Get the word out, online & offline – point to the landing page.

Step 3: Content for search traffic & outreach

“What would BlogTO do?”

  • Target local search with hyperlocal keywords
  • Compile content, a “sweet spot” of topics people search for & share
  • Leverage the content for outreach; share with local media

Step 4: Seed the community

Hyperlocal = connecting online + offline.

  • Website discussion forums to handle all conversations & comments
  • Host local events to bring people together, point to the site to keep it going
  • Compile weekly posts into a monthly/quarterly zine (tangibles)

Step 5: Keep it going

  • Keep publishing public & members-only content
  • Run more community activities suited to the group & topics
  • Keep playing with new approaches to get the word out

Wait, what about the revenue for sustainability?

  • Initially: Donations
  • Later on: Sponsorships, affiliate revenue, premium memberships
  • Potential: Additional services

You can do it, too!

What will you build?

  • What matters to you?
    What aspect of your local community do you care about? Business? Education? Politics? Environment? Infrastructure?
  • Who can you partner with?
    Who shares your interest? Who has mutual goals? Who can you work with? What can you do together?
  • How will it be sustainable?
    How will you cover your costs to keep it running? Sponsors? Membership fees? Services? Advertising? Affiliate revenue?

You can do it with WordPress

  • Plugins
    The WordPress ecosystem = magical. You can probably do it without any code!
  • Content
    Press the words. Post public and private content to attract & convert new members.
  • Community
    Keep community activities going so members feel a sense of belonging + commitment.

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