How Thought Catalog Powers a Network of Websites
Thought Catalog is a thought and expression company. It encourages heartfelt sharing of subjects that impact daily life. The company moved to WordPress VIP to support its growing user base. In the years that followed, it shifted from a single digital property to a network of websites, each with different requirements, focus areas, and user experiences. By building on WordPress VIP, they were able to expand and grow these sites, add commerce capabilities, and leverage all of their digital properties to improve the experience of Thought Catalog itself.
- Launched and grew commerce business to supplement ad-driven businesses
- Grew new sites into major successes
- Aggregated content between sites
- Supported unique requirements around pre-orders and cross-site content
Expanding beyond core business
Since its inception in 2010, Thought Catalog has grown to become a popular place for younger writers to engage in thoughtful, honest storytelling. As the site proved more and more popular, they needed to ensure that their technical infrastructure could keep up with the growing demand of their community. Therefore, in late 2013, they migrated their site to WordPress VIP.
“Thought Catalog was highly successful and managed its traffic well on WordPress VIP by the time I joined in 2015,” said Douglas Johnson, Senior Creative Technologist at Thought Catalog. “However, we were starting to experiment with doing more: new sites, new niches, new approaches, and especially selling directly to our readers.”
One of the first new sites was Shop Catalog. Originally launched as a recommendation-based site, it was also built on WordPress VIP and largely consisted of content about products. About the same time, they also launched Thought Catalog Books, originally offering ebooks and later print books for sale. Unlike the other sites, Thought Catalog Books was built using Shopify.
As these sites grew, they also grew in complexity. “It made sense to promote our books on Shop Catalog, so we started integrating them,” said Johnson. “However, the experience was a bit disjointed. You could add things to your cart on Shop Catalog but then you’d have to leave the site to finish the order on Shopify.”
The specifics of the book business also added additional wrinkles. Shopify didn’t provide a way to authorize a charge at the time an order was placed and then execute that charge whenever the product was actually released,” said Johnson. “Lots of things can go wrong with a book, for example, printing errors. In truth, we could only do pre-orders for books we had already received. In other words, they’d just be regular orders. The pre-order capabilities just didn’t work for us.”
To solve this problem, Thought Catalog adopted yet another tool, Gumroad, for pre-orders. “So now we were starting with Shop Catalog on WordPress, sending people to Shopify for orders, Gumroad for pre-orders, and Amazon or Apple Books for digital books,” said Johnson. “It was technically challenging, but it also meant the user experience changed a lot depending on what you were buying.
“We reached a decision point. We decided we had to standardize on something.”
Meeting unique commerce needs
Thought Catalog undertook an internal evaluation to decide what their future direction for Shop Catalog should be. “We seriously considered standardizing on Shopify,” said Johnson. “However, in addition to the issue with pre-orders, our editorial team looked at their blogging capabilities and determined that it wouldn’t work for us.”
Ultimately, they decided to standardize on WordPress VIP and use its commerce capabilities, based on WooCommerce, to sell items on their site. “We had big plans but found we could accomplish a lot of what we wanted to do with things that were already built,” said Johnson. The pre-orders extension provided the flexibility they had previously struggled with. They also supported bundles and shipment tracking. Shop Catalog used FlavorCloud for international shipping and Stripe for payments and were able to easily integrate both.
The basic structure of WordPress simplified the management of their books and associated content. “The editorial connection is very nice. When we write an article about poetry books it becomes easy to feature a poetry book,” said Johnson. “Even simple things like the fact WordPress has a built-in concept of an author is helpful. We also have complex situations where someone may be a writer for us and also a book author, so we have to specify if they are the author of the article or the book. The Co-Authors Plus plugin helps us solve that problem, too.”
Ensuring accounting and compliance
“We had unique accounting requirements, and the flexibility of WordPress VIP and WooCommerce made it easier for us to customize for those requirements,” said Johnson. “Take book pre-orders—we need to properly account for these. For example, if availability changes, we must immediately update the status and inform impacted customers. The pre-orders support not only provides customers visibility into availability and shipment status but also helps us remain FTC compliant.”
Another challenge is managing royalty payments. “By default, reporting is broken down by orders,” said Johnson. “But we need to get down to line items so we can pay the right royalties and split those royalties properly when there are multiple authors of a book. We wrote a small React app that extends the WooCommerce admin. We can view reporting down to the line items and then download the overall report for our accountants, which helps them manage royalty payments.”
Supporting new sites
In the years after moving Shop Catalog to WooCommerce, Thought Catalog continued building additional web properties. “We knew we were going to build more sites and we wanted to ensure consistency between them,” said Johnson. “Starting with Shop Catalog we committed to keeping everything that was common across our new sites in a parent theme. This decreased the amount of pre-launch work and let us focus on the unique problems of each site.”
One of the first new sites was Creepy Catalog. “When we launched Creepy Catalog, we didn’t know if it was going to work and there was a lot of learning. We originally conceived of it as a ‘serial killer wikipedia,’” said Johnson. “Turns out, if you do that, you get relegated to the dump by Google and advertisers aren’t interested. We switched gears by focusing on our content about horror movies. It proved quite popular and grew fast.”.
Collective World was another new site that launched not long after. Thought Catalog was historically contributor-driven with traffic largely driven by social posts; however, that changed over time. “Search is now a bigger part of our traffic,” said Johnson. “The problem is every four years another generation of authors graduate from college, want to get their bylines out, and write similar coming of age stories. We have more than 100,000 posts today, and the repetition was starting to hurt us on search.”
Collective World solved that problem by providing a place for those contributors to publish while allowing Thought Catalog to be more curated. Collective World can focus on volume of content and social shares as the main driver while Thought Catalog curates content and drives additional traffic via search.
Using APIs to share content between sites
As Thought Catalog grew and became a network of websites rather than just one site, they determined they wanted a better way to leverage their content across sites. “We wanted to be able to pull content onto Thought Catalog from across the network and be able to display Shop Catalog products anywhere we need,” said Johnson.
To accomplish this, Thought Catalog built custom blocks and patterns that utilize the WordPress REST API that would embed content feeds. Through the block editor, content creators can request posts or products from one or more of the sites and customize their sorting and layout.
To support their desired experience, they created a proxy between sites to ensure only publicly published content is used and that feeds are automatically updated over time.
“Working with the block editor has been mostly fun. In every case where there was something we were looking to do we found a way to make it work,” said Johnson.
Next steps: streamlining commerce
Thought Catalog continues to evolve their sites and particularly their commerce capabilities. In the future, they are looking to move their checkout process to a new block-based checkout. “We designed our own checkout, and without knowing it, we organized it exactly like the block-based checkout. We anticipate the block-based version will look just as good and work even better,” said Johnson.
“Overall, we’re happy with our decision to use WordPress VIP across our content and commerce use cases. We’ve been able to create a better commerce experience, customize for our unique needs, launch new sites, and empower our editors. I anticipate we will continue growing and launching additional sites on WordPress VIP.”