Aesop Story Engine: The Next Big Thing For WordPress?

The Aesop Story Engine plugin made a somewhat muted debut on the WordPress Plugin Repository this week.

It’s been well-received but is certainly not taking the WordPress community by storm (maybe it should have called itself the Ghost or Medium Story Engine?) but it should be as it puts high-production long-form storytelling in the hands of every WordPress owner.

And that could be enough to make it the Next Big Thing in WordPress.

Photo of library
Content engines: the Next Big Thing for WordPress

The Aesop Story Engine (ASE) has had a somewhat bumpy path to version 1.0 and a listing in the WordPress repository.

The brainchild of Nick Haskins, an initial attempt at social fundraising failed to reach its modest target and whilst a second round was successful the amount raised was an even more modest amount.

Is it a problem with the product, the approach or is it simply that the marketing and promotion has not managed to break out of the WordPress developer and early adopter community?

Is The ASE Just A Page Builder?

The ASE provides the ability to add a variety of components and basic layout options to content. Those components and options are embedded into the actual content so clearly it is a type of page builder.

But there are some major differences that make the ASE and your traditional page builder more like distant cousins rather than brothers.

Firstly, the ASE is designed primarily for use on posts, although it will work with pages also. It’s not about creating good-looking pages but crafting good-looking posts. Thats might be a subtle difference but it’s important.

Its intention is to be used every time you create content, not just during the initial build phase or for later tweaking. It takes the view that posts do not have a set template (although clearly there is a need for visual consistency) but each will have a layout that is appropriate to both the written content and the related media.

The ASE almost demands content production.

Secondly, the ASE is not a Swiss Army Knife toolkit designed to allow you to build any page layout imaginable. ASE is not infinitely flexible; it doesn’t use grids of rows and columns; there’s no drag and drop or on the fly component sizing.

The ASE is not a general purpose tool but has been designed for a specific task: the production of long-form articles. It is focussed on content production, providing the necessary elements to layout a story. It is a story engine.

A screengrab of the component selection screen
The ASE’s components are all specific to storytelling

Do We Need Story Engines?

The ASE may be a focussed a page builder but do we actually need a dedicated story engine? Can’t stories be laid out using any one of a plethora of page builders out there?

Undoubtedly, the highly capable page builders will allow you to produce content with a similar style and look to the ASE but perhaps not with the exact feature set. But that also misses the point about the ASE. The plugin is not really standalone; to get the most out of it you need a theme that is working in harmony with the ASE. It is a solution geared around the creation and delivery of long-form content.

The generic page builder market, on the other hand, is getting increasingly competitive and we can likely expect an arms race as each tries to outdo the other by including more and more functionality and by default an increasing the size of its code footprint both in the admin and public interfaces.

Potentially, targeted builders or engines are the perfect antidote to this as they remain focussed and relatively lean. ASE is hardly the first plugin dedicated to a particular form of content, think about plugins that help to produce pricing tables, for example, but this is a step-up in capability and scope.

Perhaps, this is the start of engines although one of their disadvantages compared with generic page builders is that their integrated nature can make for a steep learning curve.

Screenshot of an Aesop article on a tablet
Tablets could be where ASE generated content excels

Hurdles To Adoption

All new products require time and effort to learn and implement properly. There’s clearly a limit to the amount of time a user is going to spend working out how to use a product, even a free one, and so any obstacles to adoption are important.

Lack Of Quality Documentation

The bane of any new product is quality documentation. Often out of necessity, coding is first and documentation is last on the to do list as the focus is on releasing something.

The ASE documentation is pretty threadbare with some basic information on the included components and whilst most of the components are generally fairly self-explanatory, some techniques, such as the visually stunning stacked-image gallery, you have to work out for yourself, usually by looking at the code.

That’s obviously an impediment to those who can’t or don’t want to read code to find out how to use a feature.

The documentation is most lacking though when it comes to themes with very little guidance which is significant as themes are as important to the ASE as the plugin itself.

Screenshot of an Aesop article on an iPhone
Readers are increasingly consuming long-form on mobile devices

Not Just A Plugin

Whilst the ASE is a plugin, the chances are that if you install it with your current theme you will be completely underwhelmed and perhaps left thinking why your content doesn’t look anything like the impressive demonstrations.

The ASE needs a complimentary theme to get the full benefit and the moment there is only one sample theme. Install that in your test site and you’ll find your content transformed and both your experience and impression of the ASE transformed. This is such an important point and yet it is not made clear enough.

More themes are definitely needed not just to show-off the ASE’s capabilities but also to draw in those potential users who are not code or theme developers and are looking for an “off-the-shelf” solution.

The Need For Real Content Production

The ASE brings the requirement for a whole new set of skills to the publishing of content.

With the engine installed, it’s no longer just a matter of typing in the content into the post editor, doing a few checks and then hitting publish. It’s far more involved than that: someone needs to actually “produce” the content.

To get the full benefit from the ASE requires a modicum of layout capability along with great images and other media assets. This may require a change to the publishing process, the development of new skills or even additional help. It will undoubtedly length the time required to create a piece of content for publishing.

The ASE IS The Next Big Thing

I think that the ASE is the Next Big Thing, or at least represents the Next Big Thing for WordPress. Content production engines, specifically designed to produce a particular type of content and the advantages they have over generic page builders should be getting the wider WordPress community excited, especially the small-to-medium publishers.

Long-Form Is Gaining Momentum Online

From the New York Times’ Snow Fall: The Avalanche published in 2012 to Pitchfork’s cover article on Daft Punk, long-form content is gaining momentum.

Perhaps the growing interest in longer length articles is a result of the uptake of tablets; or perhaps it’s a reaction to the soundbite news approach; or perhaps readers are swapping paper for online and still want to consume the same thoughtful, in-depth analysis.

Despite the increasing appetite, the problem for small-to-medium publishers has been the expense in producing this sort of content. The rumoured cost of the Snowfall article was 7 figures and whilst there are alternatives such as the previously mentioned Creatavist and the mischievous Scroll Kit, these services only have a tenuous connection to WordPress.

The ASE, on the other hand, puts this capability into the post editing screen of every WordPress owner.

Brings Big Boys Publishing To Everyone

Now anyone can publish like the New York Times!

Well perhaps not anyone. Content production skills and competent theme developer are required to produce a decent looking article but the costs will be considerably less than Snow Fall’s especially if any sort of market arises around themes for the ASE.

But that’s really just the start because once the content is in WordPress and the ASE is working in conjunction with a theme then the possibilities really start to open up:

  • combine with a plugin such as IssueM to produce an issue-based long-form magazine
  • wrap in an app using PhoneGap (either directly or via AppPresser) for a tablet magazine
  • add subscription and / or a paywall to collect payment without losing your 30%

All achievable due to WordPress’ flexibility and its vast and unrivalled ecosystem.

Screenshot of cover image of ASE article
The ASE continues the goal of publishing for everyone.

Final Thoughts

There has been a recent movement to position WordPress as an application framework. That might give developers a warm fuzzy feeling but for most WordPress users and site owners, the application is a content management system.

The ASE potentially takes WordPress’ content capabilities to a new level of maturity and sophistication. More than that though, it represents everything that WordPress stands for: democratizing publishing. Initially, this was simply about allowing anyone to create and publish a blog post. Now it’s about being able to match the New York Times in long-form storytelling.

Put a couple of hours aside, download the plugin and the sample theme and create some content. Or if you don’t have that time, take a long look at the demonstrations. Despite the potential steep learning curve, you won’t be disappointed. And if you are a publisher you’ll be genuinely excited about the Next Big Thing for WordPress.

What do you think of the ASE? Do you think it has potential to bring long-from publishing to small-to-medium publishers? Is the Next Big Thing for WordPress or just another fleetingly interesting project?