Don’t Let Complex Tech Hold You Back
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This is a special edition of A Media Operator, sponsored by The Code Company. In these sponsored deep dives, we dig into a specific topic and go into much more detail. I hope you enjoy it!
When I was leaving Substack, I worked with The Code Company to help me with the migration. I knew that I wanted to own my own tech stack and have a site that performed quickly, and that I could grow over the long-term.
They have delivered and then some. As I continue to think about how to make A Media Operator an even better media company, I know that The Code Company will be a good partner. There’s no one else I’d choose to work with.
A few months after I launched A Media Operator, I sat down with my now-boss, Austin, to talk about the publication. I was already questioning whether I wanted to remain on Substack. And one of the things he said stuck with me. He said, “don’t worry about anything custom; worry about whatever is going to allow you to create content as easily as possible.”
I’ve thought about that over the last four years of AMO’s life because it was the exact right advice. Publishers will often spend too much time worrying about tools and flashy systems and not enough time focused on serving their audience with great content.
The simple reality is, it has never been easier to launch a publication. There are numerous off the shelf tools that are available to make publishing content easy. Heck, even Vox, which championed the custom CMS as a business, has decided to get out of that business and move its publications over to WordPress. Old faithful WordPress is back to commanding the respect of major publications.
But something happens after years in business. Management teams start to introduce new ideas that are “must-haves” for the business. Look at any publication’s ads.txt and you’ll see dozens of different ad tech partners slowing down the site. They’ll have a couple of different analytics providers, multiple ESPs for different internal teams, and every social media pixel.
Rather than running a lean, simple business, you now have a ton of tools that are doing three disastrous things to the business. First, the tools themselves are often expensive. A premium analytics provider can run in the tens of thousands of dollars. Second, many of these tools require people to work on them. Now you’re hiring people to manage tools versus finding tools that streamline operations. And third, the user experience weakens because the sites start to load more slowly.
And this is before the “custom CMS” discussion enters the room. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard teams talk about how their use cases are so unique that they need a custom CMS. You don’t. I promise. The only people who need custom CMSs are engineering teams that want job security.
It’s too much.
Whether you are just starting as a one-person operation or your media company does $100 million a year in revenue with hundreds of employees, it is important to have your tech stack work for you versus you working for your tech stack. But it can often be hard to plot that path in an efficient way.
Working with a partner like The Code Company can help.
Introducing The Code Company’s Anti-Complexity Mindset
While this is a sponsored deep dive, let’s get the truth up front and center: in many instances, you may not need to work with them.
When Ben May, the Founder & Managing Director of The Code Company, and I started talking about moving A Media Operator off of Substack, he presented me with what he calls The Code Company’s Anti-Complexity Mindset. It’s about prioritizing simplicity in a tech stack’s architecture wherever possible. The more moving parts increases the possibility of costly maintenance and distractions from the core focus of producing content. In Ben’s words, publishers in particular are often “building a ferrari for a milk run” when it comes to their tech stack.
There are a few things you can do to limit that complexity.
Using WordPress as a base
WordPress gets a bad reputation. It’s old. Developers look down on it because it’s written primarily in PHP. It doesn’t have the same sex appeal that other, more advanced technologies do.
But damn does it work. There are very few tools available today that can give you the breadth of functionality required to publish content like WordPress out of the box. Go look at the source code of some of my favorite media companies: Skift, FreightWaves, Endpoints News, Aging Media’s sites, Front Office Sports, etc… What do they all share?
They use WordPress. It’s solved the basics of publishing, which means you can save your money for the custom bells and whistles (design, unique functionality) that will make your publication stand out.
Yes, there are a ton of other tools out there, but none give you the flexibility and simplicity you need to get going. It’s why when I started thinking about how I wanted to make AMO more than just a newsletter, Ben and I talked for a long time and settled on WordPress. The optionality it gives me is greater than anything else.
If we think about the tools required for a good subscription management system, the following come to mind:
- Easy for users to sign up
- Easy to do customer service
- Easy to market it
- Easy to track what’s working
Yes, there are advanced tools that can do some really interesting predictive paywalling based on user behavior. But the reality is that for the majority of smaller publishers, these tools require too much manpower. Remember, the tool needs to work for you versus the other way around.
And yet, the subscription is where teams get particularly creative with building custom tools. I once had a developer tell me he could spin up a paywall for me easily with Stripe’s API. But we all know a good subscription is far more than just a paywall. In 2020, I interviewed Bloomberg Media’s Julia Beizer and she said:
We’re not launching a paywall. We’re launching a subscription business. A paywall is a toll booth. Please pay us some money. Great. Can you transact? Amazing. Transaction done. A subscription business means, can you actively continue to recruit and attract new members every month, acquire them. Can you retain the ones you have? Do you have the right email programs set up and push notification set up to make sure subscribers are getting value out of their subscription? We have spent a lot of time and effort in building out what I would call a 360 degree marketing apparatus in support of these efforts.
Now that’s Bloomberg. It has teams of people to do all of the things she said in that paragraph. But to facilitate the four things I said above—easy sign up, easy customer service, easy marketing, and easy tracking—would require you to pull in a number of different tools. Suddenly, that simple Stripe API-powered paywall is not working for you after all.
That’s why I went with Memberful for AMO. For the vast majority of small publishers, it works, and it plugs seamlessly into WordPress. And as we grow, there are other SaaS tools that can continue to power what we’re doing. There’s no reason to build custom here.
15 minute newsletters
Here’s where I’ll come clean: if you’re just a newsletter, there are better tools than what I’ve described so far. Whether that’s Beehiiv, Substack, or ConvertKit, if you’re just running a newsletter, you can just stick with those rather than going with WordPress.
But if you are doing anything where the newsletter is a piece of the business, but not the whole thing, you’re going to want to explore sending newsletters straight from the CMS.
Using an out of the box plugin like Newsletter Glue is the most straightforward way to send a 15 minute newsletter. You write the entire newsletter in the CMS, edit it like you normally would, and then check a box to designate you want to send it to a specific list.
Compare that to how it used to work:
- You’d write a story and publish it on the site
- You’d then copy said story and drop it into your ESP
- You’d then make sure all of the links and images got embedded correctly
- You’d then send it
There’s no reason that hitting publish on the site can’t also send the newsletter. This is how I send AMO. You can even build the archive of newsletters that so many of the biggest newsletter media companies have on their sites by using a specific category in WordPress.
Sometimes you do need custom
At some point, you are going to need to build custom WordPress solutions. Maybe the use cases are really very unique. Or, you’ve hacked together enough plugins that the out of the box experience is actually starting to seriously slow down your site.
I asked Ben how he thinks about this and he said:
We sit down with clients and get to the bottom of their requirements, and map them against the off-the-shelf solutions in the WordPress ecosystem. If nothing is hitting their needs, we roadmap out the cost of building out a custom solution and the potential revenue opportunities it will unlock and the risks involved in staying the course.
Ultimately, chasing a custom project should be looked at through the lens of financial return. The only reason you should be investing in custom solutions is if your business cannot continue growing profitable revenue over the long-term.
But it’s here that you really need to be honest with yourself. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Are there any other ways this feature can be built?
- Would you approach this differently if the budget or time were cut in half?
- Is there a single point of failure if a developer leaves or experimental tech is shut down?
- Is this solution going to require additional subscriptions, AWS processing power, etc.?
- Do you need more people to support the new tools?
If, after asking all of those questions, you still need to go custom, you absolutely should. But like I said: be honest with yourself.
Case study: FreightWaves
FreightWaves is an example of a publication that hit the wall of what could be achieved with out of the box WordPress and partnered with The Code Company to optimize its stack.
Like any media company that has been around for a while, FreightWaves was running on a basic WordPress theme and had dozens of plugins. Because of this, the site’s Core Web Vitals were low, their SEO wasn’t optimized and their Google search presence was less than ideal.
This is where it’s important to dig into the exact use cases that are important for your business. A WordPress theme might support 10 different use cases, but if you only need five, you’ve got existing code that’s irrelevant. This was the case with FreightWaves. The Code Company completely rebuilt the theme from scratch to FreightWaves’ exact requirements. The team was able to delete 50% of the plugins with zero loss of required functionality.
Nick Torres, Director of Media Technology at FreightWaves says:
Our technical debt was essentially cleared to zero from a WordPress point of view. That in addition to the SEO optimization we were doing really lit a fire under our Google search results.
FreightWaves was able to save development budget by keeping what WordPress does well—the basics of web publishing—without being constrained by the limitations of off-the-shelf themes and plugins.
And the results speak for themselves. New user growth increased by 26% and pageviews saw a 35% bump. The reason for this becomes obvious when we look at improvement in the Core Web Vitals:
- First Contentful Paint improved 87%
- Time to Interactive improved 83%
- Speed Index improved 81%
A fast site with a great user experience is critical to good SEO.
There are right ways and wrong ways to go custom. As detailed above, FreightWaves stuck to tried-and-tested WordPress for the basics, and used The Code Company to turn it into a lean and mean stack.
Technology should work for you. And in the case of FreightWaves, its editorial teams can work in the backend with faster load times, the homepage curation is significantly improved, and the business is growing.
The FreightWaves example is just one of many successful case studies. They’ve worked with Her Campus, Future Women, Mumbrella, and more. Check out all of the case studies here.
And if you are exploring whether or not it’s time to take your business to the next level and dramatically improve your operation without taking on unnecessary tech debt, reach out to The Code Company. Tell them AMO sent you.