Taking stock: how WPEngine triggered a revolution in WordPress hosting

WordPress hosting has seen a revolution over the last couple of years, with a huge shift away from cheap, crappy shared hosts and a move towards expensive, quality, managed hosting. In the space of three years, paying for quality hosting has become the norm, and for the firms at the forefront, it’s big business.

There’s a reason that managed hosting has been so successful — a lot of firms are offering brilliant services with everything you could need included and users are recognising there’s value in that. One such person is me; I made the switch to WP Engine late last year, and I’ve been very happy since.

As I said in a WPShout newsletter at the time, I immediately noticed things like loading speeds going down, causing a drop in the bounce rate and an increase in visits. Those are the kind of reasons why managed hosting is worth the price tag.

And so, with WP Engine hitting the headlines recently as it makes apparent moves towards gearing up towards making an IPO, I thought it’d be a good moment to take a look at its meteoric rise to the top of the pile in the WordPress hosting market, and see how they’ve served as a catalyst for everyone getting into managed hosting.

I’ll note quickly: I’m using affiliate links in this post because I genuinely really like WPEngine. I’d appreciate it if you used them, but don’t feel obliged to. I’m not being paid to write this… sadly.

Where it all began

For this post I’ve had the pleasure of sitting down via email with Austin GunterEngine’s “community manager guy” (my words, not his). Austin has done some very impressive work spreading WP Engine’s reach recently and is very well qualified to speak on behalf of the firm. We’ll get to it, then; I asked Austin where it all started out:

WP Engine started as the brainchild of Jason Cohen and Ben Metcalfe. Jason is a repeat entrepreneur and the author of a startup blog, ASmartBear.com, where he often would often get on HackerNews and see an influx of traffic. The blog was built on WordPress, of course, and Jason saw firsthand the need for a hosting company that could handle traffic spikes and also manage security concerns while providing amazing support.

I like this. Sadly I don’t get huge influxes of traffic from HackerNews or Reddit (yet!), but I’m pretty sure we’ve all been somewhere near there: someone influential tweets about or links to something you’ve posted, traffic spikes big time and instead of enjoying your largest-traffic day, you’re left with 40 second loading times and a whole bunch-full of missed opportunities.

So — WP Engine was built out of a need to provide hosting which didn’t buckle under the thought of lots of traffic, which is the kind of thing you want your host to do for you, really. Austin mentions Engine was “built around the idea that “hosting WordPress shouldn’t be so painful””, and you see that in some of the features on offer: a staging area (with the ability to push from staging to production), Git integration, auto-updates, actual WordPress support and so on.

It’s everything you want in a host, really. It’s approach which has been one of the reasons why Engine have grown so quickly, Austin says:

Listening to customers and responding quickly [has been important]. This means a lot of different things depending on the type of company, but for WP Engine it means the following. We listened early to the features that WordPress developers wanted, like auto updates, daily backups, and a staging area, and we built those. We knew that if we made it simple to build amazing sites on WP Engine, if we made developers and designers lives easier, we’d be able to grow.

Everybody’s doing it

As I mentioned up top, WP Engine have sparked a mini-revolution. Managed hosting is now something everyone wants to offer you. Whilst that’s less good for Engine, it’s awesome for us — the consumers. Fierce competition drives innovation and drives down prices, and whilst the competition is all very friendly, it’s often played out very publicly on Twitter, a trend driven by what I expect is a big% of customers being hugely active on the platform.

From a community management point of view, I’m not sure if that’s a blessing or a nightmare. I’ll go with “interesting challenge”; it’s certainly an interesting position to be in, where one tweet from one influential customer can make or break your day — or week. Austin mentioned how social media has played a big part in “spreading the word” about WP Engine:

Engagement on Social Media, specifically Twitter has also been huge. We’ve found that our customers really love being able to talk to us on social media. As well when prospective customers are evaluating whether or not to sign up for WP Engine, our established customers will respond before we can with their honest experience, which is usually pretty stellar! Of course, they wouldn’t support us so strongly if we didn’t work so hard to thrill them on the customer support side.

Austin — I’d be interested to see what Twitter search terms you monitor 😉

It’s a serious point, though; for WP Engine and its competitors, monitoring the social media conversation around the brand is vital, and being an effective part of that conversation is even more important. Social media engagement comes under the larger strategy of “community involvement”, and whilst it’s unfashionable to talk about “the WordPress Community”, it’s clearly a tangible, trackable thing for the Engine crew:

One of the keys for WP Engine has been to stay active as contributors to the Community. We attend 20-30 WordCamps a year, and sponsor meetups all over the country. Frankly, we’ve seen that the more we support the WordPress Community with our time and otherwise, the better our growth is. The Community values have been a foundation from the very beginning, but it’s really cool to be part of a company that exemplifies how you can “do well by doing good!”

Powering the future

Managed hosting isn’t for everyone, and it doesn’t try to be for everyone. I still have some of my sites on a shared hosting plan because for 100 visitors a month it’s not entirely cost-effective to use managed hosting. But for sites where it does matter, where security, uptime, load times and support are vital, managed hosting makes big sense.

Competition is driving a huge amount of growth and innovation, and as a customer, I’m really excited to see what’s next. Features like Engine’s new user portal which allows you to push from staging to production are actually genuinely useful, and I’m really excited to see what’s next.

So — thanks, guys, and if you’re in the market for a super-fast new host, check ’em out.