“What is WordPress?”: What to Tell Your Clients

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Your clients need a plain-language explanation of what WordPress is, and why to use it over other website solutions.

If you’re a regular WPShout reader, the question “What is WordPress?” probably doesn’t often cross your mind. If someone does ask you that question, you might give back something concise and technical, like this well-worded definition from Wikipedia: “WordPress is a free and open-source content management system based on PHP and MySQL.”

Here’s the thing, though: if you work for other people, they want to know what WordPress is. They also want to know why to use it instead of other very well-marketed ways to get a site online—which, over time, is a question less about sister CMSes like Joomla! and Drupal, and more about managed solutions (or “website builders”) like Squarespace, Wix, and Weebly.

And here’s the final thing: almost every word of Wikipedia’s definition of WordPress is pure gibberish to a nontechnical person—meaning many or even most clients. Even for clients who do understand what those terms mean, a simple technical definition doesn’t answer their real question:

Your Clients’ Real Question: “Why Should I Use WordPress?”

Your clients have real-world goals, and they care more about meeting those goals than about the technologies involved.

For the most part, your clients have real-world goals, like “I want to sell more handmade scarves” or “I want more people to read and discuss my fan fiction.” They don’t, fundamentally, care about the technologies involved in meeting those goals. (If they did, they’d be technologists!)

So when a client or potential client asks you “What is WordPress?” it’s on you to answer the question they’re actually asking: “Why should I use WordPress?”

The rest of this article summarizes my own thoughts on that question, developed over several years explaining WordPress to clients, and working to understand its unique strengths in the marketplace. I’ve highlighted some key phrases that capture what I believe are important ideas in this discussion. I invite you to shape them to your own needs and use them with your own clients!

When to Use and When Not to Use WordPress

WordPress is not the right tool for every type of web project.

To start, we should establish that WordPress is not the right tool for every type of web project. In particular, as we discuss in a previous article, WordPress is not usually the right solution for:

  • Web applications, like Instagram, Twitter, Spotify, or Airbnb, which require complex custom data models and deep user interaction—these require custom development with a web framework like Ruby on Rails or Node JS+React JS
  • Client needs based almost exclusively around social sharing—for example, someone who wants to share photos with a friend group should just use Facebook or Instagram, since these come with a very well-designed UI and a built-in way to build followers
  • Tiny sites that mostly need to serve as “online business cards,” with no need to extend functionality in the future—for these, managed solutions like Squarespace and Wix are at least as easy to set up and generally cheaper
  • Mobile apps

If you’d like more detail, please view our article on the topic. Below also is our flowchart summarizing it:

when to use wordpress flowchart

Click to view full size

What to Tell Your Clients

The following might nicely summarize this information for clients:

“WordPress isn’t the best tool for every job, especially not for web applications like Facebook, Twitter, or Airbnb. However, it is the best tool for most serious websites, from a local yoga studio to the New York Times. Let me explain why.”

The Main Alternative: Managed Solutions

When a potential client comes to you, she is probably highly aware of the following claim:

“It’s easy to build a great-looking website all by yourself.” -Your client’s TV

Managed solutions (or “website builders”) like Wix, Weebly, and Squarespace are voracious advertisers. By the time they meet me, probably half of my clients already have a Wix or Squarespace site that they’ve set up themselves. In fact, transferring those sites over to WordPress is often my first job for them.

Managed Solutions are Really Good for Some Things!

Squarespace is many people’s first stop for a very good reason.

Here’s the thing: these services are not scams. They really do allow someone who’s willing to go through a little trial-and-error to set up a good-looking website, probably for less than $100 on the initial purchase.

Contrast this to wading into the unregulated and confusing jungle that is trying to hire a “web designer”—and paying 30 times the money to get a result you have much less control over. You can see why Squarespace is lots of people’s first stop.

What really drove this home to me was seeing that the website of my favorite musician—Brad Mehldau, perhaps the most highly-respected jazz artist to emerge in the past twenty years—is on Squarespace, and looks quite good. He just needs a clean design, with almost no custom functionality (except an integration to help sell tour tickets), and Squarespace is doing a good job meeting that need.

What to Tell Your Clients

“Squarespace and things like it are really good for some needs, and they’re definitely cheaper and lower-risk than hiring a developer and using WordPress. Now here’s why I do recommend WordPress for most projects that aren’t very small and very simple.”

What Sets WordPress Apart: Flexibility and Extensibility

In my mind, the reason to use WordPress boils down to two main traits: flexibility and extensibility.

In my mind, the reason to use WordPress over other solutions boils down to two main traits: flexibility and extensibility.

By flexibility, I mean the ability to quickly and easily make WordPress suit a wide variety of needs. By extensibility, I mean the ability to quickly and easily change an existing site’s appearance and functionality, without having to throw everything away and start over.

The Source: Themes, Plugins, and APIs

These key traits come primarily from three of WordPress’s most important technical elements:

  1. Themes,
  2. Plugins, and
  3. APIs

WordPress Themes

Squarespace and all other managed solutions offer a variety of themes (or “templates”) that give the user a head-start on the site design. However, WordPress’s theme environment is different in a few ways that tend toward maximum flexibility and extensibility.

There’s a Huge Marketplace to Choose From

WordPress can “look like” absolutely anything, and if you know how to find quality, you can get a big head-start on virtually any design need.

Whereas managed solutions tend to offer a number of carefully and internally developed site templates, WordPress’s theme ecosystem is vast, open, and nakedly capitalistic. Part of the result is that there are an awful lot of bad themes out there—in particular, badly coded, overstuffed, and fragile “kitchen-sink” themes designed (once again) to appeal to people who are hoping not to hire a developer.

But part of the result is that there are hundreds of very good WordPress themes for all kinds of needs—from ultra-minimalistic single-page single-column blogging themes to robust themes meant for online retailers, design agencies, even churches and hospitals.

In other words, WordPress can “look like” absolutely anything, and if you know how to find quality, you can get a big head-start on virtually any site need and design sensibility.

Customization is Not Only Permitted, but Encouraged

Managed solutions’ job is to offer a site that works well when there isn’t someone tinkering with the code. As a result, WordPress is much easier to fully customize.

Managed solutions don’t really want you pulling apart their code. What they offer is a site that looks good and works properly when there isn’t a technical person tinkering with the details; giving you full control of every line of code on the site goes against this model, and so customization generally feels difficult and limited.

With a WordPress site, the keys are yours. For themes in particular, WordPress’s system of child themes combined with its template hierarchy allows you to create endlessly variable “takes” on an existing theme—without losing functionality, support, and updates from the original theme itself.

What to Tell Your Clients

“We can make your WordPress site look like literally anything, and we can get a design head start by finding an existing theme that gets close to what you’re looking for. What’s more, we can make infinite changes to your site’s appearance in the future, without breaking the underlying way your site functions.”

WordPress Plugins

Perhaps WordPress’s single biggest achievement is its library of over 40,000 plugins, the vast majority free and open-source. These are a huge reason to choose WordPress over other site solutions.

Plugins Make WordPress Shockingly Extensible

Other solutions simply can’t match the extensibility of over a decade of free and open-source plugin development by tens of thousands of developers.

This is really where WordPress stands out from managed solutions. Those solutions have the integrations and extensions that they have, but they can’t possibly match over a decade of free and open-source development by literally tens of thousands of developers across the world.

If your WordPress site is currently a blog, and you suddenly want it to be a blog and an online store, that’s fifteen minutes of work for a knowledgeable WordPress developer. If you want a member’s area with premium content, same thing. If you need to embed a Google form with CSS that matches your site design, same thing. If you want a Soundcloud playlist, a MailChimp mailing list signup, and an EventBrite ticket booking integration, same thing!

To seal this with a personal anecdote: I did a project for a chess enthusiast, who needed software that would let you replay chess games, move by move, on his website. Guess what: there’s the Embed Chessboard plugin, and it’s pretty good!

So in general, if you’ve thought of a need in WordPress, someone has worked hard to make it happen. This means a ton of flexibility and extensibility for incredibly cheap—usually free.

What to Tell Your Clients

“You wouldn’t believe the amount of custom functionality that is free and simple to implement in WordPress. If your site is going to grow and change with you over the years, that makes WordPress a very good solution.”

What Sets WordPress Apart: APIs

WordPress’s code base has extensibility written into it: through its Hooks events system, its template hierarchy, the Widgets API, WP_Query, and every one of its dozens of other APIs.

You Can Do Anything

There is literally no limit to your ability to customize WordPress to your exact needs.

Although some things aren’t really worth doing in WordPress (building an exact clone of Facebook comes to mind), there is literally no limit to your ability to customize WordPress to your exact needs.

Are you writing a reference resource? You can list out your articles in alphabetical order with custom queries. Do you want comment moderators? You can create a custom user type who has permissions only to interact with comments, using roles and permissions.

This extensibility is what makes WordPress the right solution for projects with growing and evolving needs—and what makes managed solutions so easy to outgrow.

What to Tell Your Clients

“There’s no limit to what WordPress can do, so if you do develop a really unique need down the road, we can adapt and fit that need into WordPress, without needing to throw away what we have or splinter into multiple technologies.”

In Summary

WordPress isn’t the right solution for every project, and it’s rarely the right solution for web applications; but it is the right solution for most websites, of any size and importance larger than “permanently very small.” Its inherent flexibility means you get exactly what you want, and its extensibility means it can change and grow with you.

What to Tell Your Clients

“If this website is going to be important to you for a number of years, if you need to be able to manage it yourself, and if you need it to grow and change with your needs over time, then WordPress is the right solution.”

Thanks for reading! How do you explain WordPress to your clients? Shout at us in the comments below.

Image credit: Christian


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Comments

  • Kabolobari says:

    This is truly a resource, a WordPress one for that matter. I’ve had to bookmark it to read through again anytime I’ll have to confront a client/prospect and defend the beloved WordPress. Thanks, @WPShout, for this.