Jai: Hi everyone, my name is Jai Sangha. Welcome to another interview on Sell with WP. Sellwithwp.com is a blog about all things related to eCommerce on WordPress, so that includes marketing, shop tips, case studies, these interviews, answers to common questions and a lot more. Sell with WP is supported by SkyVerge, the third-party… the largest third-party extension developer for WooCommerce. [Cough] Excuse me.
Our guest for this interview is Dale Reardon, who is the founder of My Disability Matters group of sites. And he has a mission to provide disability-related news, information and advice that is timely, and build a community willing to share experiences and information. So Dale, welcome.
Dale: Yes, thank you very much for having me.
Jai: Yup. So I’m going to start with your background. So I was looking over your LinkedIn and you have a background in law. So can you talk a little about, you know, how that evolved and how you got started with the My Disability sites.
Dale: Yes, I did a law degree in university in Tasmania, Australia. And I did actually practice law for about six years. I was a partner in my law firm. But during that period with my business partner got ill, we sold the practice and I actually went into tourism business – involved in heritage bed-and-breakfast proprieties, and that was where my use of the internet for marketing the accommodation properties first started. After that, I mean all throughout that time I was involved in disability advocacy and disability issues. And yea about 12 months ago now we started planning out the roll out the different phases of My Disability Matters because we wanting to help the disability communities, which is something I always wanted, being blind myself.
Jai: And so you mentioned you’ve been involved in the advocacy for disability. Was that something that you were doing something on the side while your law practice was going on and then, you know, I think it was really around 2015 when you started the online marketing, and you got really into marketing? Sorry go ahead.
Dale: Yes, when I was in university, cause I lost my sight when I was age 17. So 12 months later I went to start university. And during that time I was one of the second student at our university who was visually impaired. There were no real support services so we did a lot of our own lobbying and got different services and support, and resources brought in. And it was the case of the same thing when I was working as a lawyer. I was the only blind lawyer in Tasmania. So again it was necessary to lead the way, and yea campaign for any changes that were required.
Jai: Okay, so you know that brings it to the early 2016. What was the impetus for the My Disability Matters sites? Is that something you were looking for yourself or is this something you were hearing from other people and, you know, other people with disabilities asking for such a thing?
Dale: Yes, it was actually a call from the disability community that they wanted a, well a disability friendly and a disability own from and managed website for spreading news and articles. I’ve been involved with my wife’s business since 2011. She’s been using WordPress online to sell free location services, through using WooCommerce and WordPress. So I was aware of the power and flexibility of WordPress and WooCommerce. Then we started developing and finding the right theme and plugins to make the whole operation work. We’ve been on the news site that we operate I think we’re on to our third and final thing that suits the style and layout the best.
Jai: Okay, so you mentioned the news site. For context to listeners and viewers, there’s MyDisabilityMatters.news, .com, and .club which is the most recent one. So did you start with the news and then move into .com and then leading up to .club?
Dale: Yes, we actually started with a .com.au domain. Then, as we started operating, and our Twitter account expanded and got more followers, we noticed we’re getting a lot of international traffic because disability really does cover the same issues worldwide. There are certain specific problems or issues in each country. But when we noticed that we decided to change over to the .news domain to signify a more worldwide audience rather than concentrate on Australia. And then when we developed the .club site, that was a community so we thought that particular domain extension was appropriate and let us used the same My Disbility Matters name. And throughout this time period the .com site had been actually owned by someone else even though it wasn’t in use. And finally, through a domain brokering service managed to get in touch with the owners and we acquired the .com site and have now set that up as sort of the central headquarters of the over all properties.
Jai: Okay, can you walk me through the division for the different sites? How many like how big is the team? So for example for the news, how many contributors do you have for the news?
Dale: Yes, unfortunately for the moment the team is solely my wife and myself. Which means that while we have been concentrating on the club site using BuddyPress, WooCommerce, WordPress, bbPress. Then the other sites such as the news site has fallen by the wayside. We certainly are looking for investment and funding and talking to a number of parties but nothing has happened there yet. We do have some automatic systems put in place using the WP RSS aggregator plugin systems for brining in news and blog posts from other blogs that have agreed. Which certainly helps, but most of our time at the moment is being spent on the club site to build out our community base, get as many members as possible. So when we expand our services and offerings, we have a community already that spread can spread the word consume those products and services. Because we’re looking to expand to add a disability events calendar on the site where the community can submit their own events. There’s a very good plugin called the Events Calendar that actually integrates with WooCommerce and BuddyPress so it would be an add-on to that site. Then we also have to launch a disability podcast and a guest services directory in the future, but all those are contingent on getting on more people to help with the management and operations of all the properties.
Jai: Right, I was going to say that those are a lot of things. And a lot of, I guess, diverse things going on.
Dale: One of the things that has helped dramatically that you asked in the questions and I certainly recommend to our viewers is to get a high quality web host, preferable a managed WordPress hosting solution. I have used in the past cheaper hosting. Currently, I’m with Pagely and can’t recommend them enough. Just fiddling with different server problems and plugin faults, and those error page that you sometimes get with database errors on WordPress and all those things, it just doesn’t happen with a quality host. It makes – it frees up so much time and gives you much better performance.
Jai: Gotcha. Yup, I think that’s a really good point and something we hear often from developers or agencies. And it’s something that a lot of users maybe don’t pay much attention to because there is so many low cost options available.
Dale: Once you start adding more and more plugins, for example the club at the moment, a developer consultant we just hired to fix up some of our caching problems has sort of looked up with a gasp we got about 140 plugins in operation there. You just can’t do that on a cheap host because the server is just not up to it.
Jai: Right, yip. And so before club so let me we can just quickly talk about news, I know club is the most recent launch, launched in December 2016. But for the news site, what sort of plugins were you using in terms of, was there an eCommerce component to it or was it you more purely just publishing on a WordPress site?
Dale: Yes, just mainly on that one publishing on a WordPress site. We had installed WooCommerce to take payments for advertising and sponsorship. But now that we’ve started the club, we’ve decided to centralize our WooCommerce and payment operation all onto one site rather than trying to manage 2 or 3 installs of WooCommerce. So the .news site now is purely an aggregation publishing site and the links for payment of various things go across to the WooCommerce of the .club site.
Jai: Gotcha. Okay so both these sites, was it just you and your wife working on the development?
Dale: Yes. I handle all the backend – choosing, finding, installing plugins and trying to deal with any conflicts and problems. And Jo, my wife, handles all the visual design elements. She designs the sites and I chose the things wanted and handles the layout and navigation issues and all that sort of things.
Jai: Gotcha, Okay and you find…
Dale: …until I find a plugin and she says it’s just not good enough visually.
Jai: Okay. So, between WordPress and WooCommerce, you saw the flexibility of the platforms in your wife’s business, was there something major that was lacking? So maybe talk about something that worked really well from, you know I guess, a functionality but also an accessibility stand point. But it’s something that like a big hurdle that you know for us especially in the club site that’s been in the works for a bit.
Dale: Yes, we did start off using a Genesis framework 5 or 6 years ago, and it’s you know a fantastic design component but it does require you to actually dive into the CSS code and styling, and sometimes edit some functions and things to get the site to do what you want. So as a step up from that to get more flexibility in design and control, we moved on using Avada which we are currently are using on the .com site. One problem with a lot of those drag-and-drop webpage design plugin systems is that they really do have an impact on your site’s speed and caching performance. So where our hosting and other developers have told us that they can cause problems as your site scales up and we have noticed that it has caused a bigger drain on server resources. So one thing I would like to see WordPress do in the future is integrate some form of drag and drop editing into the core of WordPress. But make sure it’s obviously developed in a very integrated, and very server friendly way. Because I mean those systems, I know there are a lot like Beaverbuilder, Avada, etc., all give beginners and even experts a much quicker way of doing a site design. But they do have problems because they are not part of the core system.
Jai: Gotcha. Yup. I know on WordPress there is a lot of work being done for the customizer. So you know like editing essentially live, you can visually see where things land but certainly not a drag and drop stage yet. So yeah, we’ll see where that comes in but, from an accessibility stand point…
Dale: Oh yeah. I suppose the greatest difficultly with using WordPress being a vision impaired person they’ve made a lot of advances and they’re continuing to work extensively particularly on BuddyPress is the widget system is very much a visual, you know, drag a widget in place with your mouse, and that sort of technique. There are some ways of doing it with a keyboard but you really don’t know precisely where you’re putting the widget. I don’t know how they can make it a lot better and hopefully there are smarter people out there than me that designs something but the widget system is the main thing that needs improvement. I mean there are lots of others little elements at the admin backend that they have really worked on improving them a lot. There are some very good plugins out there for greater accessibility that lets you easily adjust contrasts and you know all sorts of attributes of the site. So WordPress has come a long way and it has certainly makes it very accessible website straight out of the box.
Jai: Gotcha. Okay so lets get back into My Disability Matters as a project. For the news site, how did you get your first readers and or community members and I guess sponsors?
Dale: Yes, the sponsors really came about without us really trying initially. We put a media kit up on the website which, you know, people recommend and proved very essential. And the advertisers approached us by seeing the site in its niche. It was listed in Google, they found us through searches on the web and then just read the kit and contacted us to make in inquiries about advertising. I think if you have a property in a very tight niche where you’re attracting very specific readers than advertisers will be interested. In terms of getting readers and visitors to the site we’ve had a lot success with particularly Twitter. Using the right hashtags and developing and following up on Twitter we’re now very close to 10 thousand followers on Twitter. So that has been a very successful method of getting traffic by putting in place an automated system to rotate through the different articles you got on your website to tweet them out with the appropriate hashtags. You don’t have to do it all manually but stay involved with your followers so answer tweets respond to comments and questions and just to get the engagement flowing.
Jai: Okay what platform do you use for the automated tweets.
Dale: Yes we have been using Sendible which actually lets us integrate all the articles feed them in through the RSS feed as well as write our tweets and integrates with LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus and now Instagram to some extent. It’s not very automated as it is with all the other platforms, with Instagram, and yes it works extremely well.
Jai: Gotcha. Okay and so it’s really about creating content and then sharing that over so that is it fair to make the assumption that for the dot club it’s a lot of your news or dot news subscribers would want to port over? And where did idea for dot club come? Was that something you knew early 2016 that you were going to do?
Dale: We went through a business mentoring program last year run by the Macquarie Bank in Australia. And that helped us develop our plans and part of that mentoring and coaching process led us to think about some sort of social community. We first were only going to have a forum powered by bbPress but then we saw BuddyPress had come a long way and let us have the other social network facilities and features. So we decided to go for a fully featured social network with both bbPress and BuddyPress. We have been attracting members, some organically through our current Twitter list and Facebook page, and some through media coverage that we’ve had here in Australia. And then we have been doing a small amount, because our funds are limited, but our Facebook ads which have proven highly successful. It seems the disability community are very interested and once we can get the word out they’re signing up very well.
Jai: Okay and so like those are I guess for the dot club it’s fairly new. So like Facebook ads, what are some of the challenges in growing awareness about the news site or the club site?
Dale: Yes it really is well the case with both of them that there is only so much that you can do for free, particularly if you want faster results. Then it’s a matter of having some money for marketing and advertising. Facebook ads are very effective. It’s a matter of optimizing them and getting the cost per conversion, cost per member of our community down as low as possible. At the moment, we are averaging between 95 cents a dollar Australian per member. But it has been as low as 46 cents or as high as when we first started about a $1.60 per sign-up. So yes it’s a matter of optimizing your ad copy, your landing page, working on all those things to get the word out. Using some of the plugins that WooCommerce has allowable, we’ve put our new members into our activate campaign email marketing process and send out over the first month series of emails on how to use the site and encouraging them to share with their friends and colleagues. We’re hoping that that would help spread the word as well.
Jai: Okay what platform – email management platform are you using?
Dale: We’re using Active Campaign. We have been using that for several years now. We find it’s the most flexible. I know a number of internet marketing experts have moved across towards it. It has an incredible number of integrations with other sites and services. It went through Zapier which basically lets you integrate with nearly anything and there are WooCommerce plugins as well to fully and automatically and instantly take over your new orders and new customers and put them into customer system so you can get all their details and start your marketing sequence.
Jai: Gotcha. So I mean I was looking at the .club site so for WooCommerce how does eCommerce play a role in it? Cause it seems like it’s free to sign up.
Dale: Yes we offer two forms of memberships at the moment. The free membership for disabled people, friends, carers, supporters, family members but if it is a business that wants to signup to involve in the community we do charge a business membership where WooCommerce comes in. And we are using WooCommerce even for the free registration because in the next 3 to 6 months, we have to offer a premium version of the personal membership. That’ll be entirely optional but offer special member benefits and discounts. So once they’re already in the WooCommerce system there’ll be ways to do a one-click easy upgrade and then the site is already on the Woo platform. And putting on the whole site on Woo lets us run the advertising and sponsorships. And Woo’s got a Name Your Own Price plugin that we use for donations or for members to add in any amount to their orders donations it’s extremely flexible. And WooCommerce in conjunction with the one page check out plugin we use lets you operate process that really doesn’t even look like WooCommerce at the frontend. People don’t see a shopping cart, they don’t have to go through 3 or 4 pages for checking out, there’s one page like a seamless process yet you get all the benefits but WooCommerce on the backend managing your systems. And there are several competitor plugins for doing the one page check out process and yes I highly recommend getting one of these for WooCommerce to look into those because the few steps that your costumers have to take the better your conversions are.
Jai: Right, and so I guess for the members it’s really BuddyPress which is you know making sure who the members are and who has access to the rest of the network, and once you have the premium tier, how does that work do you already have plan on what plugins would you use?
Dale: Yes, at the moment we’re using the BuddyBoss BuddyPress theme and unfortunately it at this moment doesn’t integrate with the WooMemberships plugin which we do use on another one of our website and it’s a very good plugin. But we’re using the Paid Membership Pro plugin to run the behind the scene to run membership. At the moment free members get assigned a free membership in the background when they sign up, business members get assigned a different level of membership and in the future premium members will get a different class of membership automatically get those different features added to their systems. We have started from day one with all those processes in place to make sure everyone’s in the database probably signed up and we can scale up easily.
Jai: Gotcha and so from marketing standpoint, which mediums have worked really well for you? So I know you have mentioned Twitter has been great and Facebook ads but from a community building sharing stand point you know between let’s say Twitter, Facebook, email newsletter like where do you see the most engagement where do you see the members coming in?
Dale: Yea, the Facebook ads at the moment is the best source of new members coming in. Apart from that we have been featured on television news and newspaper news and local radio that certainly brought in members very quickly. But in terms of the paid advertising at the moment Facebook ads are the most effective. Twitter has been the most effective for engagement. When we tweet out different articles or promotions or comments on the club, people retweeting, liking, even commenting providing answers to questions we post.
And I know in the internet marketing sector so-called DMs on Twitter direct messages automatic ones are frowned upon. Those people think of them as purely as spam but a feature through Sendible that we use is not to have instant DMs but you can defer them for an hour or two so it looks like you’re personally sending them and we have very good success with engagement and people signing up from those messages. I’ve written those messages personally but they’re sent out automatically to new followers on Twitter and lots of people write back and so you can’t just ignore them – you have follow up and engage with the people conversation started. But I think if you’re in a non-internet marketing niche and there is still a lot of value to be gain by deploying appropriate DM on Twitter.
Jai: Okay well fair enough how about email? I mean one of the things, one of the stats we see is that email is still one of the highest conversion mediums. Has that been the case for you or has the email newsletter not gotten as much interaction as you do with this automatic DM on Twitter for example?
Dale: Yea, with email I mean when we started the club we only an email list of about 600 people for example now all our new members are joining into our database we’ve got over 1000 or more. So yes engagement is good on email – you just need to make sure that your you have an appropriate system when sending out your emails. For example, I know one very major company I won’t name it, had email delivery problems for the last 6 months where people weren’t getting newsletter or emails. So you have to monitor your email systems for delivery problem. But yes otherwise if it’s managed properly it’s very successful.
Jai: Okay so I guess for your website, what WordPress or WooCommerce plugin that you wish you had whether it’s an existing plugin or in beta or something that doesn’t exist yet something that would solve many of your problems.
Dale: Yea one plugin that would be tremendously useful and must say a lot of people are asking but no one is developing it they was a plugin that did this up until 2 or 3 years ago but hasn’t been updated ever since and it has stopped working is a form of a community moderation plugin which would be useful for both WordPress blogs. For example if you allow almost automatic posting of your comments rather than moderating every comment if you got a high level of transactions. And then WooCommerce obviously has the possibility for customers and/or site visitors to leave reviews on products and comments. And BuddyPress particularly, all the activity on your site is posted instantly.
So a plugin that lets your site members or site visitors just flag any user-generated content on your site, report to site admin or moderator for review will be extremely useful. Perhaps if even a particular comment or element on your site receives 2 or 3 reports before you got to it can be hidden until you review it to make sure offensive comments, offensive content is not kept on your site and to help keep your community clean. But yea at the moment there simply are no premium or free plugins that does that.
Jai: So before we get into some advise questions I was looking over your LindedIn profile it seems like you’re involved in a number of different things at present. So you have the My Disability Matters, then there’s you’re the Online Beginners Hub something called the Your Business Kickstart. Then the National Disability Insurance Agency like I don’t know if this is current but…
Dale: Yes they are. The National Disability Insurance Scheme is a disability scheme that is being rolled out in Australia and I’m on the advisory council for the that scheme. We meet between 4 to 6 times a year. So I perform that service and duty without impacting on these businesses and in fact being involved in the disability community lets you stay abreast with the issues. The other sites are Online Beginners Hub is our business blogging site hasn’t had an update for a while because we haven’t been concentrating on it. Your Business Kickstart was offering a WordPress blogging course based on the Avada theme, but the Avada theme has had a very substantial update. So unfortunately, at course at the moment the video all needs redoing so that’s is being made silence at present time and the only other site that really is operating significantly is my wife’s moving to Tasmania advice and community site. She operates a membership discussion forum and content and services website they’re using WooCommerce, Woo Memberships, Woo Subscriptions all your powerful plugins.
Jai: Gotcha so you know you’re busy with all these things. What do you do when you’re not working on your projects?
Dale: Well my favorite activities, and hasn’t affected my wife’s life too much, is food and wine and culture and travel. I love going particularly to Europe, France is a favourite, Venice is fantastic. But Asia just for a relaxing resort holiday is also brilliant I’ve found. But yes, I like my champagne and wines so yes and obviously a Netflix lover as well. It’s quite an innovation in the entrainment space.
Jai: What’s one of your favorite foods or one you’re particularly fond of?
Dale: Yes I love lots of the French things my favorite is probably are desserts. Pastries you know your eclairs, all your fruit creams, different pastries items, different lollies and sweets, yes all those things.
Jai: Okay fair enough. Alright let’s get back into your project. What is your advice for people who want to start a membership focused site? Whether that’s starting like a news or blog then moving to a membership site. And I guess in a different way if you could go back essentially a year, if there’s something you could do differently what would that be?
Dale: Yea fortunately in the last year because of our experience over the last 5 or 6 years we have chosen mostly the correct systems for future scalability and operations in the first time. I guess the advice is on the new site, we started off using an Avada theme and then moved to another one that I can’t remember the name of and then went on to this newspaper theme. So sometimes don’t be scared to make changes if you think your site can be improved. I mean don’t play with it every few days just for the sake of it. If there are major advantages to be had, then don’t be afraid to make those and the one powerful thing we discovered over the last couple of years which are becoming more common is staging websites so that you can actually work on the development on your main site get your adjustments correct before you send it live. So yes, that’s something we didn’t have the ability to use when we first started I highly encourage people to make use of those facilities and good hosting sites from now on.
Jai: Gotcha. And how about advice for developers who are working on WordPress, WooCommerce or any of the plugins, something standard that should be applied across the board?
Dale: Yip, one personal request as a vision impaired or blind person and this applies benefits the whole disability community and I’ve been told it benefits people with dyslexia or low vision is to not under any circumstances use CAPTCHAs on your website or forms. By CAPTCHAs I mean those little puzzles that you have to solve when the words are all obscured or check the pictures with certain images in them before you can submit a form. There are far better solutions – we use one called CleanTalk that is between I think $5 to $50 a year depending on how many websites you have. That actually blocks, and I’ve seen for the last 12 months, blocks all submission spams on your sites, lets real people get through and requires no CAPTCHAs nothing visual to the public. Because those CAPTCHA forms just block so many people from actually using your website. I sometimes fill out forms and then have to wait for my sighted wife to be available to help me complete CAPTCHA before I can actually contact the site or fill out my application. Developers should be very aware of that because it does ruin the accessibility of your site for so many different people.
Jai: Right, that’s a really good point you know something I certainly didn’t think about. And now that the social dot club site is launched, outside of Facebook ads. What are your plans for the year for growth? Before you go into events or scheduling events, and podcasts and things like that?
Dale: The next stage really is to contact so-called influencers in the disability community. People who have blogs and or service businesses to get them to working in cooperation with us to help promote the club to their members, to their site visitors and a content marketing campaign in terms of guest posting or cross-posting on other sites to attempt to bring it to their attention to disability community. And at the same time trying to get our current members to engage in more word of mouth recommendations as well to make more use of the people that we do get to sign up to spread the word a lot.
Jai: Okay. Then I guess you know I think I saw one of the things you’re launching soon, is the shop. Is that still on the agenda for development?
Dale: Yes, that is going to happen very soon there is a plugin that integrates, actually uses WooCommerce again, to build an Amazon shop on your site and you can populate it with your chosen Amazon products ones that obviously applies to our niche. There are lots of books and services and different products out there that Amazon sells that then we can have a shop site as well as rotate links and ads to those Amazon products throughout our site. At the moment we’re mainly using AdSense to monetize the sites but we hope to build in a lot more affiliate and products and services. And yes there are systems to make Amazon integrate very easily into your WooCommerce website.
Jai: Gotcha. And then I guess for the entirely for the site for the My Disbility Matters, what is the long-term vision? Where do you want, what do you want the sites to be and where do you see this going five years from now?
Dale: Yea I mean we have a long-term vision of having lots of happy members in the community because one of the problems and reasons that we created the social community is that disability issues can be trolled and attacked and commented on through Facebook, Twitter all the current public social network so we’re hoping to have a far more tolerant and respectful community. And if some bad eggs come in then they can be expelled if they break the rules and pledge of the community to be respectful towards other people. And when we are successfully making money and have some profitable surplus depending on what you call it, then we hope to give back to the disability community. Obviously, the staff, we hope to employ disabled staff be the programmers, or support workers, designers as we require those services over the years. And set-up some sort of foundation for making grants to help disabled people gain employment or start their own business something like that. Yea we certainly are hoping to achieve something good out of the operation if it can become successful enough.
Jai: Right well you know all the best on that for sure. Anything else that you wanted to share that maybe we didn’t touch upon?
Dale: Yes, the only other comment for developers. WooCommerce plugins – the ones that are sold on WooCommerce platforms are normally very good. But if all developers could pay more attention to not breaking caching and building their plugins in a scalable performance-aware manner. We’ve just had to hire a skilled developer to look into our club site because apparently some of the plugins are breaking the caching on the site which is causing performance problems on the server. So nearly any plugin can work on a site with low traffic but when you start getting a lot more traffic and using systems like WooCommerce and BuddyPress, they need to be built properly to perform properly. So yes designers need to be aware of the best practices for making sure their plugins can be used on a more popular websites.
Jai: Right. Well you know hopefully that will be the case as we move forward not just for WordPress and WooCommerce and all the different platforms. So Dale with that we’ll end it there as we’re a little over time.
So for any better who wants to check the websites out. They are mydisabilitymatters.news, mydisabilitymatters.com and the most recently launch mydisabilitymatters.club. You can also find them on Twitter @audisability, so that’s @audisability. Dale thanks so much for joining and thanks for everyone for watching and listening.
Dale: Thank you very much for your time and obviously, WordPress being open source it’s all base on the helpfulness of the community a which a lot of I’ve received, so if anyone is starting a new site out there and wants to chat about advice, quite happy to talk with people.
Jai: Well there you go. Alright, thanks a lot guys.
Dale: Thank you very much.