During the last WordSesh event held in August 2016, Matt Mullenweg joined the community for a session where he spoke about the growth of WordPress and his thoughts on confronting the project’s external threats. Mullenweg floated the idea of a WordPress Growth Council – a collection of individuals and organizations interested in contributing to WordPress’ growth.
“We have very direct competitors in Squarespace, Weebly, and Wix,” Mullenweg said. “Wix is a public company so it’s actually possible to see their numbers and look at things. This year alone there’s about a quarter billion dollars being spent in marketing by proprietary systems that compete against WordPress. That’s more spent in one year than has ever been invested in all of the WordPress companies combined since they started. That’s more money spent in marketing than for many consumer brands.”
WordPress has grown organically over the past 13 years through the power of its community, without expensive advertising campaigns or traditional marketing initiatives. For the first time, Mullenweg is looking to tap a segment of the community that hasn’t often been directly involved in contributions – people and organizations with large scale marketing expertise.
“I think we could do a lot to figure out a roadmap for countering this huge marketing spending being directed against us, because we are the big guy here,” Mullenweg said. “We are the 26% and they are like a 1%. But even though they’re smaller, they might be cannibalizing some of the most valuable aspects of the WordPress customer base.”
Just before WordCamp US, he formalized the idea with a post on his blog and an open invitation for council member applicants:
Never have there been more threats to the open web and WordPress. Over three hundred million dollars has been spent in 2016 advertising proprietary systems, and even more is happening in investment. No one company in the WP world is large enough to fight this, nor should anyone need to do it on their own. We’d like to bring together organizations that would like to contribute to growing WordPress.
The survey for potential council members asks them to share what they bring to the table as well as a few ideas about the growth of WordPress so far, how it can be accelerated, and how the project can best respond to the millions of dollars competitors are spending in advertising. Responses have already started coming in.
Alexa Scordato, VP of Marketing at Stack Overflow, applied to be part of the council. She said her experience as a long-time WordPress user and marketing executive has motivated her to help improve the overall consumer experience.
“I’ve been tinkering with self-hosted WordPress sites since 2007 and I’ve helped probably 100+ individuals and organizations explore the merits of the .com and .org experience,” Scordato said. “Let’s get real – the relationship is confusing, the admin panel is intimidating, and the learning curve is steep. The product marketer in me is itching to help streamline the value proposition across these funnels to help make it easier to educate and on-board new users.”
She is also an advocate for the open web and sees WordPress as a key player in combating the threat of walled gardens and closed systems that diminish user freedoms.
“While many enterprises are beginning to invest more in open source projects, there’s an imbalance in the force,” Scordato said. “The fact that an open source platform like WordPress powers 27% of the web makes it the greatest agent in defending Internet freedom.”
Nuno Morgadinho, co-founder of WidgiLabs and co-organizer of WordCamp Lisbon, is another applicant to the growth council who published thoughts on what it should address. He thinks WordPress needs to take a hard look at attrition before considering advertising.
“As important as advertising is, a lot of businesses struggle and fail, not because they aren’t adding new users, but because they are lousy at keeping the ones they’ve got,” Morgadinho said. “We have to look at ourselves and see where we are losing users rather than just desperately try to reach new ones. Most people use things based on referrals.”
What Will the Growth Council Look Like?
After WordCamp US, I had the opportunity to ask Mullenweg a few questions about what types of applicants he’s hoping to attract to the council. He said he envisions it will function very much like a working group or mastermind group where council members learn from each other.
“It’s not necessarily only people at larger companies – the biggest contributions will come from people who currently are or have in the past managed some sort of large promotion of something,” Mullenweg said. “It doesn’t need to be WordPress. Maybe they sold Starbucks. Large advertising campaigns are what we’re trying to counter so experience for that is a good precondition for participating in the growth council.”
Mullenweg said he has received applications from people whose companies aren’t in the WordPress ecosystem but who are experienced in this area and want to contribute some night and weekend hours to help out.
“I imagine there will be other folks, including from Automattic, that are going to be spending budgets of tens of millions of dollars in the coming year and want to talk about that,” Mullenweg said. “There are some things that could be shared, including publicly. Everyone who does marketing does some research first. Why don’t we open up that research? That’s part of what I want to encourage. By taking an open source approach to this, doing more sharing both within the council and in the wider WordPress community, I think there’s a lot more to learn.”
Mullenweg said the meetings won’t be completely open, as companies may want to share some confidential information. The council may have some house rules in place to make it a safe space for companies to share what they are doing and to keep strategies safe from competitors.
In 2017 Mullenweg has committed to putting on the “product lead” hat for WordPress core development and it seems he’ll be bringing that same approach to the growth council.
“Advertising is just a product, just like an interface is, just like a website is, just like anything else,” Mullenweg said. “There’s a lot of opportunity there.”
During his WordSesh session he outlined a few initial objectives for the council to tackle, including figuring out why the project has grown so far and understanding where the community’s resources are currently being spent.
“We should try to enumerate and track what is being spent right now, add up all the advertising, affiliate fees, and sponsorships of events,” Mullenweg said. “Determine what that adds up to so we know what is the gap we need to close and the relative arsenals on both sides.”
Mullenweg said he would like the council to figure out a plan for advertising where “we’re not competing with each other but really directing that outward against the folks who might go to Wix or Squarespace.” This particular aspect may be a challenge, as the council will need to avoid the appearance of serving only larger corporate interests in the fight against external threats.
“These external threats and proprietary threats are far bigger than any intra-WordPress open source threats,” Mullenweg said. “We can grow the pie far faster than we can take shares from people in the same pie.”
For the past three years, WordPress has consistently added 2% to its market share each year without any form of advertising. Instead of the project continuing to get by on “marketing happenstance,” as Mullenweg put it in the State of the Word address, 2017 will be the first year that WordPress makes a coordinated marketing effort to change the growth curve.
“The people power of WordPress is probably the thing that contributes most to the usage of WordPress,” Mullenweg said. The growth council’s challenge with advertising is producing that same magnetism on a larger scale without tarnishing the organic quality of the message. Can they come up with a marketing campaign that captures the essence of what WordPress is to the people who love it most? If the council is successful, it stands to have a positive impact on the WordPress economy as a whole.