WordPress Multisite Essentials Part 1 – Concept, Success & Failure

Over at WPMU DEV a member recently asked if we could give them a rundown of key concepts, tips, tricks and lessons learned in starting up Edublogs – and working with innumerable other folk on their Multisite projects.

Well, here’s the start of a series that I hope WPMU.org readers will find helpful, interesting and be able to add to.

And where better to start than, at the beginning…

The Concept…

Ping!

There are a whole bunch of reasons that you could be starting off with WordPress Multisite, you could be looking to

  • Start or adding to a business, hosting sites – just like we do at Edublogs
  • Power a publishing network of multiple sites – maybe for advertising revenue
  • Provide a community (existing or new) with publishing tools
  • Manage your own network of numerous different WordPress sites
  • Or a combination of the above, or something else!

But the core thing you need to have, in my opinion and experience, is a clear focus on a particular niche, in which you already have an online presence, a clear sense of purpose and no small shortage of enthusiasm for the area… because this is gonna require some serious commitment.

Let’s take Edublogs, for example…

So, with Edublogs I think we ticked all of those boxes.

Blogs for education, is a pretty well defined niche (although folk have come along since aiming at areas like just primary), the reason I started the platform was to give teachers tools that they otherwise couldn’t get (apart from on the substandard, spammy and poorly regarded Blogger platform), I – as a lecturer in education design – was completely immersed in the area and I’d already been hammering away at the idea for a couple of years prior – I was bloody committed, to say the least.

Plus I already had a great online presence in the area as one of the earliest Ed Tech bloggers.

So, ask yourself, do you have your niche, sense of purpose, presence, enthusiasm and dedication to be in it for the long haul.

You do? Cool :) So let’s have a look at some fictional case studies that I’d reckon are feasible, and some that I reckon won’t work out.

Destined for success… in the news

You’re involved in a local online (or blended off and online) publication, that’s got an audience and generates a few letters to the editor.

You’re looking to provide these readers with a place where they can have their own voice and be heard by other folk who read that publication, that’ll integrate into your existing site and that’ll thus increase your online exposure, advertising revenues and reader engagement.

You’re dedicated to and involved with that publication and invested in taking it forward.

Screw forums and comments on articles don’t provide this – for you, a Multisite network is gonna be a success.

Look at the Guardian’s Comment is Free or checkout VG Blogs – this can work for any publication with a decent audience (say an off-line circulation of 1000 up, or a dedicated news site of 100k+ PIs / month) – just make sure it’s something that people are invested in enough that they want their own voice.

Local community newspapers, specialist areas (e.g. Scrabble enthusiasts) or more… this is for you.

Destined for failure… advertising alone

You’re looking to set up a multitude of sites, in a particular niche (lets say credit cards) which you can publish to (maybe manually and with a bit of autoblog thrown in), SEO the heck out of and thus sell advertising on.

When it's all about the money...

Now, I’m gonna make an assumption here that you’re not Aaron Wall or some other uber experienced, massively well connected and immensely wealthy SEO guru, content farmer or domainer… if you are then heck, get in touch :)

Assuming I’m correct though you’ve got a bunch of things against you:

  • You’re starting from scratch in a field you have no existing online presence in – this makes your work immediately many times harder than, say, an established financial blogger
  • Your motivation is money… seriously, you need to have a passion for what you’re doing, if only to sustain you through the upcoming effort
  • You’re most likely picking an insanely competitive niche, there are, of course, less competitive niches but doubtless the advertising revenue will be pretty lame even if you dominate them (as a caveat though, there are plenty of significant and growing niches still available… don’t be afraid to go for one, but don’t expect to get rich in the short term).
  • And you are fundamentally going to be relying on Google – which, post-Panda, is probably a fairly bad idea

Destined for success… hosting sites for your friends > community > professional area

Just a small rocket... at first :)

This might come as a bit of a surprise, but I reckon there is an absolute heap of success to be had in setting up what is effectively boring-old-website-hosting, using WordPress Multisite, for as small a community as your friends and family… or as large a one as anyone looking for an small business site (maybe with some commerce thrown in).

We’re not necessarily talking Shopify here (although I don’t see why, with an adapted install of MarketPress, you couldn’t give that a go) – but with the following attributes I think Multisite could do a great job towards a sustainable and eventually decently profitable bit of work, as long as…

  • You’ve got presence, of a sort, already in that area – even if it’s just physical presence, why not start up a site focusing just on Melbourne Shops, for example!
  • The domain is absolutely key, and a great place where you can get a real advantage… if you; are going locally, then you should definitely use a local domain suffix.
  • You’ve got the right payment model in place.. people aren’t afraid to pay for a decent site, charge them at the start and keep charging them, it’s easy with the upcoming release of Supporter
  • And you’ve got to be prepared to work your ass off marketing, supporting and improving the site… don’t be afraid to support your eariest users directly by email and over the phone (or in person) to get you some serious traction

All in all though, Multisite is perfect for this sort of project – for a great (and profitable) hobby or a whole business venture in its own right or to support another product, this rocks out.

Destined for failure… taking on WordPress.com, Blogger etc.

Failure can make you an unhappy clown...

Sorry to break it to you but, especially if you’re going to be using existing technology (in this case WordPress Multisite) – don’t even think you’re gonna be able to have a crack at the established behemoths.

Sure, if you’ve got something revolutionary tucked up your belt, like a Tumlr style setup (although you *can* do that with WordPress now :), or even Wibya, or Squarespace, or a new way of doing things… then you’ve got a crack (allbeit a very small one) – but doing it with regular old Multisite, um, no.

And it’s not just because they are so established, have so much money and such a great presence – it’s because you won’t be able to differentiate yourself and create the associated buzz.

And I bet your domain name sucks too ;)

But you’re welcome to give it a shot, and there’s nothing wrong with aiming high… just don’t say I didn’t tell you.

So, should you stay or should you go?

Fundamentally, of course, it’s up to you – but I’m hoping that the above has given you an idea of whether or not you should, and if you do, the core things to consider in making that decision.

For me, I was pretty lucky, I had a great domain name, a good online presence in that space and no shortage of motivation, it all kinda fell into place.

But that was just for starters, after that there came more than a few issues and that’s what I’m going to aim to look at in the following posts of this series, namely:

  1. How do you market, promote and get folk using your Multisite setup
  2. Assuming that works, how do you scale in terms of technology and people
  3. And, of course, how do you effectively monetize – which will draw extensively on the ups and downs of Edublogs

So, I hope you’ve enjoyed the first installment – feel free to ask me any questions at all in the comments below – and of course, subscribe by RSS, Twitter or Facebook to make sure you don’t miss out on the rest of the series…

Feature images CC respectively CayUSA, jjjohn, jurvetson and Mark Strozier.

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Comments (14)

  1. Thank you for a great post!

    Looking forward to the rest of the series.

    Hope you are able to cover hosting in detail (apache/nginx, dealing with large traffic spikes, caching on multisites, staging/dev environment setups when using domain mapping)

    Jann

  2. Hi James
    So what approach would you advise for a 2005 established non-Wordpress free blogging site (Netartmedia.net Vlog software) with a few thousand existing free bloggers on it and around 15,000 unique visitors monthly – would that be a likely candidate to change over to multisite and monetise via supporter?
    That is my situation and i am not sure whaty i am going to do with this site at the moment – especially as a lot of this site’s bloggers are fake ugg boots affiliates … i am considering my options – multisite or a tumblr style front end blogging wordpress installation where bloggers only get access to the front end – for free – and if they want more they get their own sub-domain on a multisite.
    I’ve been a paying subscriber to Premium WPMU Dev for a couple of years and downloaded pretty a lot of stuff but not actually got anything really going yet.
    i should say i am a web designer by day : )
    Any advice would be most welcome.

    w

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