Building Awesome Online Communities with WordPress

Below are my notes from today’s “Building Awesome Online Communities with WordPress” Minnebar session.

My name is Toby Cryns, and I have been building online communities with WordPress for the last 3 years.  I have been a full-time WordPress developer for 6 years.

Building online communities is no easy business.  In fact, it can be wrenching at times.  There are people problems, technical problems, and even money problems that can get in the way of building an awesome community.

Then there are the rewards of doing it right – smiles, victories, real connections with real people.

The interesting thing about building an online community is that many of the problems are technical, but almost all of the rewards are people-based.  Keep that in mind as we move forward.


This session is about people.  It is also about the tools that I have used to connect people with each other.

I would like to note that my wife is attending her first MinneBar today.  We met in an online community –

I wasted years on – a meat market for daters.  It is every man, woman, and grandparent for herself on that site! was different.  It was a community.  I got the sense that people were looking out for me while I was on that site.  It was fun.  It was playful.  …and that was before I even went out on my first date!  hardy-har-har!


When I build online communities, I always think about how made me feel and how made me feel.  Both sites have the same mission, but both sites have vastly different communities.  Why?


The WordPress Way

WordPress provides a wonderful foundation on which to build an online community.  But it is a tool.  It is not an end.  It takes real people and real work to build a great online community.

I actively manage many different types of communities that are built on WordPress.  There is the magazine-style, special interest, blog-comment-share community of Lavender Magazine.  We have the hands-on, discussion format, document-sharing, coalition-building powerhouse that is United Front.  You can’t see my 12-member, fond-memory-bringer-backer, Cryns Family Music Archives, but trust me – it is awesome!  Or perhaps you have interacted with the greatest user group in town, MSP WordPress

3 Keys to Success

  1. Define and be defined by your members/audience.  Be careful about who you let into your community.  Once you let people in, let them set the agenda.
  2. Seed discussions.  People are shy and busy.  Sometimes I need to prod and pull people into a discussion – just like in REAL LIFE!
  3. Address technical problems IMMEDIATELY!


Must-have plugins to run on every site:

Cryns Family Music Archives

  • A community of 12 people
  • Custom post type for songs
  • Interactions take place on comments
  • UI/UX: Simplified media upload interface via our “Magic Admin” plugin
  • UI/UX: Duplicate post plugin to make it easier to upload songs with similar meta-data (album name, artist, producer, etc.)
  • UI/UX: WP Email Template
  • TOOLS: Magic Admin, custom post types

United Front

  • A curated community of 1100+ people
  • BuddyPress Profiles
  • BuddyPress Forums
  • Blog Comments and GD Star Rating for Race to the Top
  • UI/UX: Vastly-simplified BuddyPress interface.
  • UI/UX: Turned off lots of BuddyPress features and focused on forums
  • UI/UX: Continue to invest time making system-generated emails more engaging and relevant
  • STAFF: 2 full-time staff members, plus my team.
  • TOOLS: WordPress Multisite + BuddyPress

Lavender Magazine

  • 30,000+ community of GLBT and GLBT allies
  • Blog comments are a big vehicle of engaging the community.  Also podcasts.
  • TOOL: Blubrry PowerPress
  • STAFF: 4-person editorial and design team, plus my team

MSP WordPress

  • 600+ registered community members
  • BuddyPress
  • Google Groups
  • Used’s BuddyPress installation to plan WordUp


Things I have learned over the years

  • User experience should be the primary focus of any community.  Design and functionality are secondary.
  • Building and managing an online community requires significant time and resources.  It is not a “set it and forget it” enterprise.  I am continually tweaking, updating, and fixing existing functionality.
  • Features are important.  Focus on core functionality.
  • Start small and grow.  Call it “beta” if you have to.  Be okay with a very small group for a long period of time.
  • Do user testing!  Ask questions of your users.
  • Usable design is more important than beautiful design.
  • Communities are about PEOPLE.  They are not about features, tools, or websites.
  • Use WordPress for web pages, blogs, comments, forums, profiles.
  • Use non-WordPress tools for payments, shopping carts, email lists.
  • Technical support is a necessity!  Only take on as much technology as you know how to support (or as much as you have money to pay someone else to support).
    For example, if you have no money and only know how to manage a WordPress blog, then run a community on a WordPress blog.  Don’t take on technologies that you can’t support!  (I see this with online shopping carts ALL THE TIME).

Tools of the Trade

…To be continued at BuddyCamp on April 28!

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Toby Cryns

Toby Cryns is a freelance CTO, expert WordPress consultant, and teacher.

He offers free advice to improve your freelance biz.

He also publishes small droppings every now and then to and

Follow Toby's contributions on Github and