What inspires you to write more often in your blog?

It’s kind of timely that just over a week after launching my new theme on UnfoldingNeurons.com with a desire to write more posts I come across two great articles talking about how to be inspired to write.

John Saddington wrote 10 Types of Blog Posts That Helped Me Blog 3 Times a Day for a Year. I had the privilege of meeting John at the ChurchCrunch one year birthday party before a conference I recently attended.  He’s fairly new to the blogging scene but let me tell you as a blogger he has come a long way in a short period of time.  In the words of Micheal Hyatt at the party, “I’ve never seen a more productive person”.  So, this article quickly caught my eye.  If such a busy person as John can blog so frequently, so consistently – how does he do it?  Here’s some of the types of blog posts that stood out to me as things I could do very easily here:

  • Date Specific – picking a day to do a regular systematic themed post (i.e. desktop of the week etc.). Not sure how I’m going to do this yet (or what theme/topic I’d do) but it is something I could do.
  • The Super Simple Post – Things that have been appearing among a few blogs that I read is something called “Caption Please” where a picture is posted and an invitation is given for readers to leave what they think the caption should be in the comments.  I think “The Super Simple Post” can just be links you find or great quotes as well.  Another super simple post that I use is my weekly twitter digest.  Every Sunday my blog will pull all the tweets I made in the past week and automatically publish them as a digest post.  The only danger with this is if you don’t write for a while it really makes your blog look stale and artificial.
  • The Series Posts – Splitting up a long post into shorter chunks as a part of a series.  This is actually a technique I’ve already used here and one of the reasons I wrote my Organize Series Plugin for WordPress because it makes this a lot easier to do.
  • Guest Posts – Maybe someday I’ll invite people to be a guest writer here on Unfolding Neurons.  I think its better suited to niche type blogs that are more focused on certain topics than Unfolding Neurons is. Nevertheless, I’m sure I could invite people to write a post fitting into one of UnfoldingNeurons.com’s meta categories.
  • Humor or Satire Posts.  Those who know me know that my humor is rather dry.  I  find it hard to write humorously because I’m so flipping choosy about my words (woops did that slip out?)…

Go on and check out the full article for all of the different types of posts John makes on ChurchCrunch.

The other blog post I came across today written by Diana Adams for the Bit Rebels blog.  Her post titled, Get Inspired to Update Your Blog! has 7 helpful hints for writing and posting more frequently.  Here’s a few:

  • Start your love affair with words – get excited about the different words and combinations of words that you can use to evoke a masterpiece.  I agree with her that there is magic (I’d call power) in words.
  • Remember your why. This, I think is key.  If you can’t articulate why you’re blogging then its very hard to be inspired to write.  It’s kind of similar to something Jon Acuff said at the recent “Off the Blogs session” I attended at the Catalyst Labs event, “Don’t blog unless you have a story to tell” (paraphrased).  In other words, if you don’t have anything to say then you won’t know what to write.
  • Every post doesn’t have to be profound.  You don’t have to have something that the world is going to stop over.   It is the profound posts that take ages to write.  This is where I get stuck on quite frequently.  I set out to write a short post on something and end up writing an essay – oh, I’m such a profound guy…

Again, jump to her post for the rest of the goods.

Why I think every church and pastor should blog…

This post was published as an article in the “Connections” magazine which is a periodical put out by the Western Ontario District of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada (with whom I hold my credentials).  I publish a regular column for this magazine called “Tech Pass”.  If you are visiting this post from that article please leave a comment at the end!

Hopefully by now, most of you reading this post have heard the term “blog” and have some idea of what it is. If not, then it’s time to get away from the monastery for a bit…

The simplest definition of a blog is that it is a place on the internet where an individual publishes their thoughts. When blogging first started it was viewed as the online scribbling of people with too much time on their hands – people writing about what they eat for lunch or their cat, “Scratchy”. However, blogging has become a journalistic phenomenon worldwide that is even beginning to overtake printed media and large news organizations as the purveyor of ideas, news reports, and articles.

A big reason for the prolific spread of blogs is that they put the power of publishing in the hands of anyone within reach of a computer and internet access and make it as easy as sending an email.

To expand on the definition I gave of a blog above, a blog is a regularly updated website with content organized by date and the most recent post on top. The typical blog contains short paragraphs or posts on various topics, with links to other blogs and online conversations. Readers are usually able to add comments. Most blogs make it easy to stay up-to-date by allowing you to subscribe and receive updates and changes as they are made (see the “.rss” article I wrote in previous edition of TechPass).

I decided to take the space in this TechPass column to write a little bit about why I think it’s a good idea for your church (and pastor[s]!) to have a blog:

Reasons to have a blog:

1. Blogs help establish a sense of community.

…Especially among the younger generation. Of course this sense of community doesn’t happen overnight but when the blog is contributed to regularly, and the readership base grows, that sense of community begins to follow.

Of course, community as pursued in the church isn’t something that will happen just because you have a blog! But what it does do is supplement what people hear in the pulpit and experience through the week. It helps to personalize and define the community you are trying to create as you communicate with your blog.

2. Blogs give you a world-wide presence

The internet has global reach. It is entirely possible to create connections with believers and non-believers all over the world that would never have been created otherwise when you and/or your church blog.

3. Blogs are interactive

Blogs provide an opportunity for people to comment on what is posted and in this way conversations can be carried out that might not take place in other environments. Readers can give feedback and the comments and conversation could even provide the ideas for future ministry!

4. Blogs are EASY and FREE form of publishing.

…and they help to develop your communication skills (i.e. writing/speaking).

5. Blogs can aid discipleship and conversion.

They can continue the teaching begun on Sunday. This is a biggie. As a pastor there have been times where 80% of the research going into the sermon for a service doesn’t make the cut for what I actually preach. Blogging provides an outlet for that extra research and can help people go “deeper” into what they heard on a Sunday.

Not only that but the conversations that take place on your blog (via the posts you make and the comments that follow) might even be instrumental in providing the extra nudge for someone to put faith in Christ.

A blog is also an incredible way of communicating your vision as a church. Rather than just a static page stating what the church’s vision is – a blog provides the opportunity for continually emphasizing and sharing that vision in various articles communicating the ideas, the testimonies, and the stories of that vision unfolding in your church.

6. Blogs can introduce searching people to your church.

More and more people are using the internet to “check out” churches before they attend. A blog can give those searching people an opportunity to learn a bit about the uniqueness of your church and – this is a biggie – if the church’s pastor blogs, people will get a chance to “know his/her heart” before they “hear his/her voice”. A blog provides the opportunity to introduce yourself to people who haven’t even come through the door yet.

7. Blogs can communicate the continuing story (that people sometimes don’t hear).

One of the realities of being in leadership at a church is that you see and hear way more than what most of the congregation sees and hears. Some of that is good, and some of that is bad. However, a blog gives a venue for you to share some of that behind the scenes stuff. Sometimes, even sharing the bad (in a good way) can help illustrate the truth that really the church (or you as a pastor) isn’t perfect (sorry to burst your bubble) but God is – so when GOOD stuff happens it becomes readily apparent that it really IS God who made it possible!

Dangers to be aware of:

I believe every church should have some sort of blog. However, there are some cautions that should be acknowledged:

1. Your blog shouldn’t be your only means of connecting with people.

This applies especially to pastors. Don’t think just because you are writing about something and publishing it to your blog that people are getting it. Even among the people who read what you wrote, most of them won’t get it. What you write must complement what you live. You’ve still got to work on investing in relationships.

2. Once it’s published its forever on the internet – be careful what you write!!

Make sure you reread what you wrote before publishing. Let me repeat: make sure you reread what you wrote before publishing. It’s that important. Once you publish to your blog – it is now live to the world and WILL even persist if you delete or edit your post later. The reality is that people who subscribe to your blog feed (automatically offered on every free blog software) will see what you publish almost immediately. Search engines will “read” the new post and a cached snapshot will be saved on their servers (so even if you delete the post it will still show up in search results). A good question to ask before posting is, “Would I say what I’m writing in front of the Deacons?” Well, you know what I mean (wink).

3. Can be a time waster.

Make sure you balance carefully how much time you spend in crafting that blog post against the other things that you do. Is it worth a time investment? I believe yes. BUT, and this is a big but, it isn’t worth investing most of your time. The best thing to do is get into the habit of just posting “drips” – short paragraphs of insight on a frequent basis that challenge your readers, give insight to your thoughts (or your church), and ask questions that encourage conversation.

How to get started:

The best way for your church to do blogging is to have it integrated with your church website. Of course, this may not always be possible. In those cases you can link from your church website to one of these free online places to host your blog:

Blogs to check out:

To see how others are doing it – here’s a few blogs you can check out.

http://blog.marshillchurch.org/ (Mars Hill Church Blog)

http://www.newspring.cc/blog (NewSpring Church Blog)

http://perrynoble.com (NewSpring Lead Pastor’s blog – Perry Noble)

http://waterlooassembly.org/wpa-newsposts/ – (Waterloo Pentecostal Assembly Blog – this is the church I pastor at…we’ve still got a ways to go but at least it’s a start!)

http://revkevinrogers.blogspot.com/ – Kevin Roger’s Blog (pastors NewSong Church in Windsor, Ont)

I wish I could have included more churches/pastors from our district with blogs but none have entered my radar – if you know of any leave a comment below with a link to their blog!! I’d love to add some more Canadian Christian bloggers to my feed reader – if I get enough new interesting links I’ll make sure it’s get published in some format!

Till next time…

Some free resource links

  • http://www.blanksheetmusic.net/ – great website for quickly designing and printing off blank sheet music templates for all your music writing needs (Worship Team resource)
  • http://sumopaint.com – free online image editing software (it’s amazing what kind of image editing you can do via this website).
  • http://photl.com/ – free stock photography
  • http://faxzero.com/ – use this to fax something for free anywhere in Canada or the US while on the road or when your fax machine is down (now really – you still fax stuff?).

The New Marketing

StreamingFaith.com conducted this interesting interview with Seth Godin discussing how the church isn’t doing a very good job of reaching people with their message in today’s new “marketing era”.  I really like his observations on the usefulness of blogging – something that I think the church is way behind on…check out the interview at, Is Today’s Modern Church Busy Making Meatball Sundaes?

To Christian Bloggers/Leaders: Are you twittering?

Mark Kelley, the News Director for Saddleback Church-Purpose Driven Network, has been advocating a Christian Bloggers Network via an email list obtained from doing a survey put out by Pastors.com and Church Communications Pro. I am intrigued by such a network but hope that it becomes more than just a marketing vehicle and self-promotion outlet. If that happens I’ll bail out before you can say “snap”!

As I’ve given thought to some of the legitimate questions Mark has asked regarding the formation of this network and how it can be useful, my mind has hit on twitter. No, that’s not an adjective describing my state of thought! Twittering is a new phenomenon that has hit the web in the last three months – another offering in the Web 2.0 flavor of the year crowd.

What is Twitter?

Twitter is basically a website that has provided users a way of simply and quickly answering the question, “What is _____ up to now?”. Think it of mini-blogging on steroids. In of itself it isn’t really much – but combined with the Twitter API, the ability to “tweet” from multiple platforms (IM, your phone via text, web, and even your WordPress blog ), and it’s ease of use, the potential for this tool in useful “networking” is limitless.

How useful could it be?

A quick list – I’m not going to go into details about exactly how each item on this list can be implemented (maybe I’ll delve further into that in future articles) but suffice it to say that this list is based on what I see as doable. (NOTE: For some of these points I’m assuming that at least a preliminary overview of the Twitter.com site has been undertaken by the reader)

  1. A way of keeping track of what people are up to on the network and actually developing more meaningful relationships beyond the semi-social nature of a blog.
  2. Got a quick insight from scripture – need a quick answer to a question – want to announce a helpful blog post, or a useful web find? Rather than posting to a forum, or network site – twitter it and via the instant transmission over web, im, and text, the potential for a quicker reply multiplies exponentially.
  3. You can add all the folks in the network as people you follow (or friends) all at once and if someone tweets stuff that becomes annoying you can then remove them. Thus keeping only the relevant tweets. However, just because you remove someone from the list of people you follow or are friends with doesn’t mean that they can’t follow you if they so choose.
  4. For those who are friends with twitter (two users following each other) – private twitters between each other are possible. Quick conversations can be executed via this method.
  5. Twitter would be a great way to get a quick announcement over the network – sure we could use email and that will still be valid in some cases – but twitter allows for those kind of last minute announcements that you want to get out right away.

Those are just a few observations I had in mind when twitter popped in my thoughts about the Christian Bloggers Network. However there are also some areas where I think Twitter could improve to make it even more useful for this activity:

  • If you could assign users to “groups” and color different groups in your tweets that would be ideal. (either color or symbol or some way of differentiating groups)
  • Along with the groups idea: If you could selectively turn on and off Private Twittering to whole groups of people rather than just individual users that would enable even greater communication. In other words, there may be tweets that we don’t want the whole twitter community to see BUT we do want the whole Christian Bloggers Network to see.
  • Have individual group twitter pages that archive our twitters.
  • Implement some sort of Twitter/AJAX/AutoMagic goodness that creates ical links or something of that sort for enabling posting of event info etc. into online calendars and/or desktop/phone/pda apps. You could choose what the default target of such links would be via your individual twitter settings.

To conclude, I really think Twitter could turn out to be one of the best networking web services out there and if the Christian Blogging Network ever does become a reality I truly hope the bloggers/leaders start twittering!
By the way, my twitter username is “nerrad” if you want to know 😉

Choosing WordPress: “She’s got guts”

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Wordpress as a CMS

In the previous article in this series I introduced the first reason for why I chose to use WordPress as the engine for three CMS-like sites that I designed recently. I wrote about the theming/template system in WordPress – the “looks”. In this article I’m going to talk about the “guts” of WordPress.

Why I chose WordPress

2. The Guts

When I refer to guts, I mean the following things that are “inside” the WordPress engine:

i. File Structure

From the perspective of a newbie developer, the WordPress file structure greatly aids in comprehending where things are and what files need to be edited/looked at in the development process. The fact that directory trees and file names are descriptive of their function cuts down on a lot of the guesswork into where things are located.

Here’s the layout of the directory tree structure:

/wordpress (root): You’ll find all the main configuration and base level files such as config.php (database settings), wp-blog-header.php (calls necessary includes and header information), and various feed related files among others. I’m not going to go into detail about each of the files but I’ll just mention that for the most part, the files in the root wordpress directory are what WordPress accesses when initializing.

/wordpress/wp-admin: In this directory are located all the core files that run the administration interface of wordpress. Files are named appropriately according to what their purpose is. For example, guess what the “edit-category-form.php” file is for? Or how about, “inline-uploading.php”?

/wordpress/wp-includes: For the most part this directory contains files that are called/included when various other WordPress .php files are executed behind the scenes – hence the name of the directory is wp-includes! Also, within this directory is found a sub-directory for all the javascript files/libraries included with the WordPress install. Again file names are very suggestive of their purpose. Examples like, “category-template.php”, “comment-template.php”, and “template-functions-post.php” all are indicative of this. A little bit later in this article I’ll mention the wonderful world of template-tags in WordPress but just a quick mention that the files that make the template-tag magic happen are located in the wp-includes directory.

/wordpress/wp-content: For most self-hosted WordPress users, the wp-content folder will be the one you’ll access the most. Within this folder is found all the user modifiable/plugginable content.

There is the /wp-content/themes/ folder which is where all the themes/template related files are found. Each theme is found in it’s own named folder. There is also the /wp-content/plugins/ folder which is where all the various WordPress plugins are put.
A brief word about naming convention with themes since this is another area that I really appreciate about WordPress when it comes to design/development. The files for themes all have a naming convention that just makes sense and again aids in understanding the purpose of the code found within. Here’s a brief list of the some of the various file options found in WordPress themes. (Important note: Not every theme has every file as some theme authors choose to keep their file arrangement compact and thus include various theme structure elements in a smaller number of files – which is possible with WordPress)

  • index.php – This is the layout for the initial page when WordPress is loaded. Alternatively (but not necessary with WordPress 2.1) home.php can be used for the first page. WordPress 2.1 however allows you to set what you want to be the first page loaded up via the administration options page.
  • single.php – The file that contains the layout for single post pages.
  • 404.php – Contains the layout for what is displayed on error 404 pages (when someone is trying to access a page that doesn’t exist).
  • archives.php – Usually contains the layout for archives pages
  • category.php – Contains the layout for category archive pages
  • sidebar.php – Contains the layout for the sidebar section of a page.
  • header.php -Contains the layout for the header section of a page (the top that usually contains the Blog Title/logo and the main navigation menu)
  • footer.php – Contains the layout for the footer section of a page (footers widely vary between themes but at the minimum usually contain the copyright info for the blog, powered by WordPress text etc.)
  • functions.php – Contain any theme specific functions. If your theme is widget enabled you’ll see this file as the code to enable widgets for the theme is found therein. Some theme authors also use the function.php file to add theme specific functions to the blog (without using the plugin functionality of WordPress).
  • page.php – Contains the layout for static pages on your WordPress blog.

So you can see from this list that the naming convention with WordPress themes also helps in understanding where various elements of the site design can be found. There is much more regarding this but since the WordPress Codex has great help files I’ll direct you there instead.

Also found within the /wp-content folder is the /plugins/ folder. This is the central location for where all the various plugins you can download and install for your WordPress powered site. This makes it easy for keeping track of what plugins you have installed and also knowing where to install the plugins you download.

Yes, the File Structure of WordPress is one component of her “guts” that help in developing CMS based sites.

ii. Coding Practice
Something else that is found in the WordPress core that might not be really obvious at first is the actual coding practice that is followed. Not only have WordPress developers followed good coding practices in the files they’ve written but they also encourage it for those adding to WordPress via themes/plugins.

When I talk about coding practice, I’m talking about adherence to x-html/.css/php standards – and certain structural elements in writing code so it’s easy to read and parses correctly. This, along with standards for inline documentation, make it easier to track various code elements and what it affects. When you read through WordPress core code not only is the structure fairly easy to follow (for someone who understands php of course 😉 ) but because functions are named for what they do it greatly helps in locating things you want to edit/understand. Clean code makes for less headaches!

When I was designing my sites and needed to understand how something worked in WordPress, not only did the file structure make it easy to find out what file the particular function might be in but the coding practice made it easier to find the snippet of code in that file.

iii. Template Tags
Probably one of the most important aspect of WordPress guts that stood out for me were the usage of what the WordPress community knows as template tags. Put simply, template tags are php functions that are used in your theme templates to perform specific tasks. There are a variety of different functions built into WordPress that make customizing themes and designing a CMS based site less time-intensive than most CMS-based scripts that are out there. Add to that the fact that Template Tags are fairly well-documented and this makes them even more powerful.

iv. Category System
One of the strengths of WordPress in my opinion is the way content can be organized via the built-in category system. Using this and various conditional template tags, the possibilities for making a dynamic CMS becomes much simpler. For instance, on my church website that I designed, I greatly utilized the category system to “split-out” various sections of content that the site would serve up. I have an “upcoming-events” category for events, a “Pastor’s Perspective” category for all my pastoral blog entries, an “announcements” category for various news and announcements made on the church site, and many more other categories. Then using the conditional template tags I can place content from a specific category in the design the way I want it. Whenever I want to add content to a particular section of the site I just have to add the post to the correct category.

Another bonus with WordPress is not only are there categories but you can also further classify posts by subcategory creating more possibilities for dynamic design.

v. Paging
One important component of WordPress that is key to it’s use as a CMS is the ability to create static pages from the administration interface along with dynamic posts. If this component were not available then it is likely I might not have used WP in designing my sites. Put simply, there are instances when you will be presenting content that rarely changes (hence, “static”) and thus you want an easy way to add this content and edit it if and when needed. If WordPress didn’t have this feature the only way to add static content would be to develop specific theme template files that have the static content encoded via html.

An added feature that was also appealing to me was the fact that I could create certain “page templates” in my theme that could be selected in the “write page” panel. This makes it possible for me to create different page layouts for different topics/subjects.

Again, the WordPress Codex has excellent documentation on everything to do with using Pages.

vi. Admin Interface
I could probably write a whole article on just the administration interface of WordPress but I’ll just include a short list of what was important to me in reviewing using WordPress as a CMS (everyone loves lists don’t they?)

  • Simple Layout – A novice user won’t have to read through a thick readme file to understand how to get around. That was important to me because for two of the sites I designed (gohpc.net and vigliottiwoodworking.com) I would not be the only one maintaining them and I wanted things to be as easy as possible for people who would be doing that.
  • Quick Load Time – The interface is not graphic intensive which makes things load fast for those on slower ISP connections. This was an important consideration for one of my site designs as the person maintaining that site is on dial-up (shudder)
  • WYSIWYG write/edit window – Although I’m not a big fan of the Tiny-MCE window that is included with WordPress for my own use – it does come in handy for those who are not familiar with html code. Once again an important consideration for me when designing for end-users who would be maintaining the sites. A plus for me is that I don’t have to use the “Visual-Rich Editor” (as WP developers have named it!) if I don’t wish to. WP 2.1 makes this even easier by giving the ability to switch between visual and non-visual (code) right on the same page.
  • Built in Roles Management – basically this means that I can give other people access to add things to a website without giving them full access to other administration functions.
  • Easy Plugin/Theme Management – The activation/deactivation of plugins and themes is ridiculously easy in WordPress.

vii. Security
The final “guts” component of WordPress that was important to me is something that few novice web developers think of but has nevertheless become one of the more important priorities in web-design. One of the dangers of dynamic websites that invite interactive contributions from visitors is the accessibility to malicious hackers. Insecure sites become targets for activities that can be as “benign” as the changing of your sites homepage to as harmful as the complete erasure of your database. Either way, when an unauthorized individual invades your website it’s never pretty.

Although, I’ve been fortunate to not experience being hacked, I realize that it’s only a matter of time before it happens if steps aren’t taken to ensure good security measures are in place.

I’ve written all that to write this, WordPress is one of the most secure publishing engines available. I’ve heard of very few WordPress based sites that have been hacked and even the ones that have been were due to the owners not ensuring that the latest WordPress updates have been applied.

In reviewing the WordPress development over the years I noticed that a great deal of attention is given to the security of the code and as such whenever there are updates released there are usually security patches included as a result of the diligent testing and reporting of the WordPress developer and user community.

No platform can ever be 100% secure from malicious hackers – but WordPress comes pretty close. That’s important.

That’s all I’m going to highlight about the guts of WordPress in this article. While there is much more that can be written, I wanted to try and limit what I wrote to what actually contributed to my decision to use WordPress as a CMS.

Next up, I’m going to talk about the beautiful appendages of WordPress – plugins. In the next article (or two) I’m going to highlight how the plugin architecture of WordPress makes it easy for developers/designers to expand on the core functions and then I’ll list some of the plugins I used in the sites I designed.

Choosing WordPress: “ooo doesn’t she LOOK fine?”

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Wordpress as a CMS

In the previous article in this series I gave a summary of some of the core differences between a CMS (content management system) and a blogging engine. I talked about some of the cases where one system is more preferable over the other when designing websites. In the conclusion to the article I mentioned that in light of what I had just written, it would have made more sense for me to go with a CMS for the website designs of Hanover Pentecostal Church, UnashamedSermons.com, and VigliottiWoodworking. Yet, as can be observed from the title of the series I obviously used WordPress instead. This article will focus on the first reason for why I made that choice.

But before I get to that I’ll give a quick rundown of some of the requirements that needed to be considered for each site.

UnashamedSermons.com
UnashamedSermons.com UnashamedSermons.com is where I host all the various sermons I have (and still am!) written and preached while pastoring at my church. There were predominately two purposes for me creating UnashamedSermons. One, I wanted a place where I could archive all my messages and access it for personal reference. Two, I wanted to make available to as many people possible these messages in the hopes more people would be impacted.

Some of the requirements needed for this site:

  • Custom theme to deal with a specific structure I wanted for the front page
  • A way of cataloging/archiving all the messages I submit

VigliottiWoodworking.com
vigliottiwoodworking.com My brother in law wanted to me to design a website for him that could be used as an online portfolio for his cabinet making business.

His requirements:

  • Simple design with pages he could edit that describe his business. Simple, but still professional looking.
  • Capability to add/remove pages at will (for him)
  • A gallery system that he could use to display pictures of work he had done. And again something he could easily edit
  • Everything had to be fast especially since he is usually working with dial-up internet access (affordable broadband is still no available where he lives) and didn’t want to have to wait through long page load-ups.

Hanover Pentecostal Church Website
hpconline In redesigning the website for my church I wanted to move away from the generic cms look in the previous design I had used (phpNuke based) and give it a more up to date look. The purpose of “HPCOnline” is to:

  • inform visitors of what my church is all about
  • to provide updates/event information for members/guests of the church
  • to make maintenance and adding of features in the future easier to do (and open up the possibility for church volunteers to assist in maintaining the site)
  • to provide a place for me to post a “Pastor’s Blog” as a way of communicating with people associating themselves with HPC (and reaching a wider audience as well).
  • show the latest sermon I’ve preached and provide not only the text of the sermon but also a podcast/downloadable file.
  • In the future, I hope to add an online library system where people can see what resources our church library contains, who has signed it out, and also sign out books themselves. On the backend the librarian can use this to maintain the church library (printing out reports of overdue books etc.)

With outlining some of the requirements I was looking to meet (just remember that’s only a summary!) in designing the three websites out of the way – it’s now time to (finally!) get to what won me over to WordPress as the solution.

Why I chose WordPress

1. Looks
When I refer to “looks” I’m referring to the robust theming/templating system that WordPress offers. While I can do graphical design work, it takes me a long time and my skills at coming up with something clean and neat are limited at best. With literally hundreds (thousands yet?) of themes currently available (and more being added daily!) there are a wide variety of not only color/graphical combinations but also site layouts to choose from. Since a large part of site design is developing a layout and graphical interface that makes it look polished to visitors, having this wide variety of themes to choose from saves time in the development process.

Another plus with the theming system WordPress offers is that due to the thought that has gone into the code architecture – the themes are for the most part – version independent. That is, with most themes you won’t have to update them when you upgrade WordPress to the latest version. Again, a plus on the maintenance side of the ledger.

Also, I must not forget to mention that creating/modifying themes is fairly straightforward and there are many excellent resources available that aid in learning how to create your own themes. If you are familiar with .css that goes a long way in the theme creation/modification process.

The first full-fledge design that I used WordPress for was my sermons site (UnashamedSermons.com). I decided I would give a go at creating a theme from scratch and even though it took me a bit longer it helped me to appreciate just how robust the theming system of WordPress is.

When I designed VigliottiWoodworking.com I again went with a custom built theme due to the requirements my brother in law had for loading speed and presentation. I was able to easily strip the theme of any extraneous WordPress functions that were not needed and yet still leave the dynamic capabilities intact for future use.

Then when it came to designing my church site I decided to go with a modification of the fresh theme since I liked the existing layout for it so much! Of course, I heavily modified the structure of various templates/pages etc so that it would fit my uses, but I was able to save alot of time by not having to worry about the graphical design so much.

Of course, looks aren’t the only reason why I went with WordPress – and looks, while important, are definitely not the only defining criteria in determining what should be used as a script for a website.

In the next article I’ll look at the guts of WordPress in all their gruesome glory!

CMS vs. Blog…no you don’t need Pepto Bismol

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Wordpress as a CMS

{this is part 2 of the series “WordPress as a CMS”}

WordPress is primarily a blogging tool (or engine as I like to call it!) but I’ve learned in the course of designing three websites that are not primarily blogs that WordPress can also cross over and serve somewhat nicely as a Content Management System (CMS). In the second article of this series I want to talk a little bit about the difference between a CMS and a blog and then in the next article I’ll talk about how this played into my decision to use WordPress for the design of UnashamedSermons.com, VigliottiWoodworking.com, and gohpc.net.

On the surface it may seem that there isn’t much difference between a CMS and a Blog. They both provide some sort of backend interface for administrators to manage the content of the website. They both invite social interactivity via the ability for visitors to leave comments, register as a user, or even become a contributor to the content. Then of course the primary focus of each is the delivery of some sort of content which in later years has involved not only pictures and text but also videos and audio (podcasts and the like). But surface appearances can be deceiving!

I believe that while the differences between the two may not be extreme (and indeed the line is being increasingly blurred between the two with the advent of Web 2.0 and the “social” internet – and as I’ll argue later – great tools made available like WordPress), there are a few things that make a CMS distinct from a blog. Why is this important? Put briefly, in developing websites there are some places where using a CMS works better than using a blog engine and vice versa. Later in this article I’ll explain how this is so.

Here’s some more noticeable differences between a CMS and a Blog (keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list and I’m not going to go into a great level of detail as that’s not the purpose of this article. Also keep in mind that this is a very generalized list – I fully realize that not only are there differences between CMS platforms and Blogging platforms but there are also differences within and among various CMS platforms as well as in and among Blogging platforms. Again the purpose of this article is not to compare Drupal with phpNuke or WordPress with Typepad.):

  1. Difference of structureThe bones McCoy, the bones…A CMS is usually a system of “blocks” and/or “modules” that are added to the website via the administrative interface. Blocks are usually positionable “content display sections” (for lack of a better term) whereas modules are usually entire sections of a website designated to a specific task. For example in a CMS you might find a “menu-block” which contains a list of hyperlinks to other areas of the site and below it you may have a login-block which allows people to register and/or login as a user to the site. Now the login-block might actually be a part of the “user – registration” module that controls all the various backend stuff for managing the users of the site and what they have access to. An example of a CMS might be Drupal or phpNuke (in my eyes even MySpace may be considered at a CMS of sorts). In most typical content management systems there is a main “core” to the software upon which these various “modules” and “blocks” are added to build the website (and then “skinned” by a theming/templating system). Certain modules and blocks are usually included with the default setup but there are many possibilities for how the software can be used to set up a website.A blog engine on the either hand is usually a core defaulting to a certain layout and may have the ability for adding “plug-ins” or “widgets” which can give additional functionality to the blog but for most users the layout stays roughly the same (in terms of structure of the blog – of course theming systems can change the way a blog looks but generally speaking the components [structure] stays the same). In CMS terms a blog usually has one module (which is the core) and the potential to add optional “blocks” (plugins or widgets). Some examples of blog engines are of course Google’s Blogger, Typepad, and of course, WordPress.
  2. Difference of purposeWhen the mask drops from the ceiling…

    A blog engine usually has one purpose and that is for publishing the various writings, observations, and sometimes pictures of the person owning the blog or other authors he/she has invited to contribute as well. Typically the core and administrative interface is designed with that purpose in mind. A blog is like an “online journal” – although in a real sense, the evolution of the blogosphere has led to certain blogs taking on the credibility of more traditional newspapers or other journalism forms and so the blog has become (is becoming?) a mass news outlet. At its core however, it still remains a way of for the average joe to self-publish what they want to write (and the rest of the world to read…although we only think the whole world actually wants to read it 😉 ).A CMS on the other hand, has a core that is a lot less rigid and provides for all kinds of different uses (including blogging as a component). Because of it’s module/block structure – a website designed around a CMS can just as easily (figuratively speaking!) become a storefront for selling things as it can be a community hub via forums. The purpose of a CMS is managed content delivery period – in whatever form it may come.To put it simply – multiple sites using CMS may have all kinds of different purposes but, for the most part, multiple sites using a blog engine only have one purpose – getting their message out!
  3. Difference of function Martha, the VCR time is flashing again…all I want to do is change the dang channel! When I use the word “function” here I’m not using it as a synonym of purpose but rather as a way of describing the usability of a CMS vs. a Blogging Engine. There are two ways of looking at this – function from the standpoint of the developer and function from the perspective of the user/contributor.From a developer standpoint designing a website that has different purposes (shopping system, blog, news portal) with a CMS is more functional than designing the same site using a blog engine. Further, the argument could even be made that it would make more sense to start up a blog using a CMS rather than a blog engine because it leaves the door open to easily evolve the website to further uses without worrying about the adaptability of the core software.However from a user/contributor perspective the broad functional use of a CMS can sometimes require a greater learning curve to do what you want to do (especially in the case of multi-purpose sites). This is certainly more the case when the developer/designer is not the one who is actualy maintaining the website but instead is passing it off to a user(s) who will most likely be unfamiliar with the way things work. A CMS can create more hoops for a user to publish the content they want to publish. So in the example of using a CMS as a blog – while it may make more sense from a developer standpoint – to a user, having to find the module for the blog and learn how to recognize it from the other modules, access it, write their piece and then publish it can be more difficult than doing the same from a blog engine where the steps are (generally) much more intuitive.With that said, the functional difference between a CMS and a blog engine is probably the one that varies the most between various software solutions. In some cases it may not be a problem at all – I’m basing my observations here primarily on the usability differences I’ve observed between phpNuke and WordPress.

For me, these three differences (structure, purpose, function) are the primary ones I worked through when thinking about the best fit for the sites I was designing (CMS or Blog engine?). Of course, from the title of this series you should’ve guessed by now that the sites I designed were more suited to a CMS than a blog engine. If so, then why did I go with WordPress as the core for their design? In the next article I’m going to answer that question.

The key to blogging for the long haul…

Even though I’m still relatively new to the blogosphere (I’ve been blogging since May 2006 – see my first post!) I have been journaling off and on for quite a few years and blogging and journaling share some similarities in terms of what gives lasting power. Of course, there are pretty significant differences between the two (the primary one being the “public” and journalistic feel of a blog vs. the private and diary feel of a personal journal) but for the purpose of this article I think I can write out of some modicum of experience! Another reason that contributes to a measure of insight found in this article is the fact that even though I haven’t blogged myself until recently, I’ve been an avid reader of other peoples blogs for quite a while – there’s certain things that are common among bloggers with lasting power that stick out to me.
Anyway, the purpose of this article is to answer the question, “What are characteristics that keep someone blogging for the long haul?” According to David Sifry’s, “State of the Blogosphere Report” for August 2006 Technorati tracked it’s 50 millionth blog! Now that’s a lot of writer’s out there – however according to a comment David made in response to Glenn Fannick’s article, “Technorati’s Active Blogs — Perhaps 1.4 Million?“,

55% of all the blogs we track have had at least one post in the last 3 months.

Just over 11% have posted in the last week.

That means that 27.5 million blogs have made a post in the last 3 months and a little over 5 million have made a post in the past week. Now regardless of the debate over how many actual active blogs there are (which also depends on what criteria you use for measuring active!) the point I want to make is that there is a huge number of people who enter the blogosphere who simply create a blog and then never visit it again. So what gives – for the percentage of people who contribute regularly and maintain an “active” blog? The following is my “short-list” of indicators that suggest that a person who blogs will be still blogging 5 years from now:

First on the list is they like writing

It goes without saying that if you don’t like writing (or creating any other sort of content – ergo pictures/audio/video etc. – that have become an increasing new medium for bloggers) then your blog probably won’t last that long.

A pretty important component of this indicator that can’t be overlooked is the subtext, “do they have something to say?” If you start a blog simply to say, “I have a blog” but don’t really have a reason for creating the blog then more than likely you won’t be blogging very long!

Second, they like tweaking their blog

What tweaking am I talking about? Everything from simple things like changing a few colors to the type-face all the way to the more complex which involves getting your hands dirty in the actual code. Now the amount and complexity of tweaking may vary between individual “long-haul” bloggers but nevertheless a common characteristic is that all of them have had some involvement in tweaking their blog to their own liking. How many active bloggers you know have not changed their blog layout/structure/colors in some way in the past 3 months (let alone years…)?

Third, their initial experience with blog-ware

Currently there are a plethora of varying blogging tools available to choose from. Everything from Google’s Blogger, to the much hyped MySpace, and my personal favorite WordPress (both the hosted and self-hosting versions). A bloggers initial experience with the blog-ware he/she chooses will have bearing on whether they become an active blogger. Is the tool easy to use? Does it let them do what they want? Is it a pain to maintain (enter in spam)? Does it “break down” a lot? All of these are examples of some of the factors that play into the initial experience of a baby blogger. I remember my first foray into blogging came in the form of creating a Blogger.com account over a year ago. It looked like a great service but at the time I just didn’t like the restrictions placed on what I could do in terms of overall design (because I’m a heavy “tweaker” personality…and don’t twist that into something else :lol:!) I think I posted one article and then I quit. I didn’t even think about blogging again until I came across WordPress…but that’s another story 😉

Fourth, do they contribute to the blogosphere somehow?

This contribution can come in the form of commenting on other people’s blogs, creating themes and/or plugins for others to use, or providing content that other’s benefit from. Although, personal journaling has it’s benefits and I know some long-haul bloggers often write about things that happen in their lives but people who have long-lasting activity in the blog-world are folks who also contribute in someway to the blogosphere (other than only keeping a daily journal that just themselves and a few family members might enjoy).

Fifth, they don’t worry about posting every single day or sticking to a routine schedule

That’s not to say that having a routine schedule for posting is bad but simply that long-haul bloggers don’t worry if they miss a few days or have a lapse in their schedule for posting. There’s nothing that kills a bloggers enthusiasm more than feeling they just have to post every day to their blog! Of course there are some that enjoy doing that but that’s the point – long-haul bloggers post regularly to their blog but don’t do so out of obligation but because they have something to say!

That’s why nailing down a definition of an active blogger can be so difficult because does someone have to post every day to be considered active? In my opinion, no.

Sixth, they don’t worry about writing “mongo-size” posts everytime they post to their blog!

If a blogger is trying to come up with a change-the-world kind of article every time they post they’ll quickly run out of juice and lose enthusiasm. Not only that but blog-readers, for the most part, have an upper limit of about 5 minutes for tolerance in reading an article. In terms of blogging longevity (from the standpoint of the blogger) it’s better to make frequent small posts interspersed with the odd monster rather than trying to maintain a book writing attitude with every blog entry.

As a side-note – a lot of long-haul bloggers I read write series which is a good way of keeping short posts but at the same time tackling a subject that requires more than a few lines. As a plus, writing something as a series contributes to keeping you blogging!

Finally, the seventh indicator is they aren’t obsessed with whether the world reads their blog or not

At first, this indicator may appear to conflict with what I wrote for the fourth indicator (do they contribute to the blogosphere somehow) but it really doesn’t because the point I’m making here is more about that inane behaviour people have of wanting to be liked by others. On the blogosphere this can be a blog-killer. Long-haul bloggers aren’t consumed with building up the biggest following of readers (not to say that doesn’t interest them – of course it does – but it’s not the driving force behind them blogging) but are more interested in the content they post.

The truth is, the majority of bloggers will not build up any significant following of readers and if the only reason you are blogging is to see how many comments you’ve got that day, or for statistics junkies – seeing how many “hits” you’ve got – then blogging will quickly become boring and at best you’ll abandon your block and at worst you’ll become the anathema of the blogosphere – a splogger – stealing content from other popular blogs to drive your page rank up and satisfy your appetite for recognition (and the spin-off ad money of course you hope to get). Of course this isn’t to say all sploggers start out this way but for people who are obsessed with counting hits (as a primary motivator for blogging) splogging is certainly a real possibility.

There you have it – my short list (ha!) of indicators that I believe point towards someone becoming (or the reason they are) a long-haul blogger. To summarize:

  1. They like writing (and have something to write about!)
  2. They like tweaking their blog.
  3. What their initial experience with blog-ware is like.
  4. Do they contribute to the blogosphere somehow?
  5. They don’t worry about posting every day or sticking to a routine schedule.
  6. They don’t worry about writing mongo-size posts every time they write to their blog.
  7. They aren’t obsessed with whether everyone in the world reads their blog or not.

As usual, I look forward to any feedback you might have to offer!