Taming BuddyPress

While you can use BuddyPress to create a feature packed community site in mere minutes, it is often overwhelming for both administrators and users alike. I’ll share some tools and techniques that you can use to build your BuddyPress community while maintaining your sanity.

Talk Notes

Safari Story

Once upon a time there was a brave safari guide. He loved exploring the jungle and knew the secret trails, spectacular sights, and hidden dangers better than anyone else around. The only thing he loved more than exploring was guiding others through jungle safaris.

Each group had something special that they wanted to see. Some wanted to explore the caves. Others wanted to observe the wild animals. Still more were just looking for a way to escape from the business and strains of life. All was going smoothly and wonderfully until…

One day a group of business owners called our brave safari guide with a request unlike any he had heard yet. They wanted to tour the jungle in one day with the following list of expectations:

  • See as much of the wildlife in the jungle as possible
  • Avoid purchasing jungle gear
  • Remain perfectly safe

A little puzzled, the tour guide agreed and recommended that they rent a helicopter. All agreed and they set out the next day flying high above the jungle canopy. They saw monkeys, elephants and giraffes, and a myriad of jungle birds. But the business owners were not happy. The helicopter was too loud for them to hear the jungle noises and also scared away many of the smaller creatures.

Sincerely desiring to give this group the best experience he could, our guide recommended that they rent a Jeep and drive through the jungle the following day. Although disappointed about going over budget and spending more time, they reluctantly agreed.

The next day seemed to be going better. The group could see and hear the sights of the jungle more fully. All went well until they got stuck in a mud pit in the middle of the day. It took everyone to extract the vehicle and all were covered in mud and filth by the end. The angry exclamations of the group forced the guide to return them all to the village confused and frustrated.

By this time, the brave safari guide was exhausted and in despair. He had never had an unhappy group. There was one more idea that he had and he hoped that it would finally satisfy the goals of this group.
So the following morning, the group set out in a canoe down the jungle river. The view of the jungle would be limited, he knew, but at least they were safe and clean. It didn’t take long, though, before they encountered an issue. The group had been adamant about not purchasing jungle gear and therefore had no protection against the insects that hovered over the water. Cries arose from the group and they turned back to the village to nurse their bites and stings.

On their way back, one of the members of the group lamented that there was not a place where they could go and see the different sights of the jungle without experiencing all of the inconveniences. At this, the safari guide had an idea (as I’m sure you do also) and told them all to meet him in the village square the following morning.

The following day, they all gathered at the village square and walked down to the local zoo. There the group oogled and awed over the exotic wildlife, rode an elephant, and even ate lunch with some trained monkeys. They stayed long into the night enjoying the comfort of their newly found jungle paradise.


Hey! My name is Tanner Moushey. I’m the Founder and lead developer at iWitness Design. I’m also a WordPress + BuddyPress contributor (plus a bunch of other plugins), I have written several public plugins, and in my free time am working on StudyChurch, a SaaS built on BuddyPress.

This is my family. I love them dearly.

Just to answer a few common questions: yes, the two oldest are twins, yes they were all on purpose (except the twins, you can’t do that on purpose).

It’s funny walking through the store with all these little boys and people kind of look at us like some kind of freak show. Then they see the little Lizzie and are like, “oh! You finally got your girl!” Then they see that my wife is pregnant again and get all confused.

My wife is a pretty special lady, though, let me tell you. There’s no way I could do what I do without her. I used to train horses back in high school and I’m finding that raising kids is not much unlike having a bunch of wild horses running around my house.

Speaking of taming wild animals… let’s talk about BuddyPress.

If you’ve ever used BuddyPress then you know that it is an extremely powerful tool for building complex community sites. Not only that but there are also tons of plugins to extend that feature set.
Determining what features to include on your BuddyPress community can be a time consuming and daunting task. You want it to succeed, but it also needs to be sustainable.

I’m going to share with you 3 steps you need to follow in order to create a successful BuddyPress site and I’ll show you how I followed these steps with the BuddyPress community I created at StudyChurch. These steps are not unique to BuddyPress, but I feel that these steps are uniquely important to running a successful BuddyPress community site.

We are going to look at:

  1. Defining your Audience
  2. Defining your Goals
  3. Defining the experience

Define the Audience

Before we spend time discussing what features you should have on your site or what your site should do, we need to figure out who the site is for and what their needs are. You can have a feature set as long as your arm, but if you are not meeting the needs of your community they won’t use your site.

If you do not know who your audience is, you will not know what to build.

Who is your community serving?

So who is the person you are trying to serve with your community? You may think you know the answer to this question, and you’ve probably thought about it before. But I want you to think about it deeper.
Imagine your IDEAL customer or community member. How old are they? What do they do for work? What is their salary? How many kids do they have? Are they married? What kind of car do they drive?
This is called a “Buyer Persona” and it feels like you are coming up with a character in a story… and in some ways you are. You are going to create 3 to 4 of these personas and use them to write a story of your successful community.

Here are a few personas we recently created for a Catholic organization we are working with…

What are their needs?

Now let’s talk about the needs of your community. Keep those Buyer Personas in mind because we will be using them the rest of the talk and we’ll call them your ideal customer.

So what are the needs of your ideal customer? And not just something they would like, what is the URGENT need they have that they need your help with?

Think for a moment about your ideal customer. What are their goals? What are their dreams?
Now, how does your community address that? How does your community change their life?
That may seem like a crazy question but the reality is that every new thing we try is potentially life changing in some way. And if it isn’t, we tend to not use it very long.

When I was initially building StudyChurch I decided that my ideal customer’s needs were twofold. 1) They need a better way to create and distribute study material that they’ve developed and 2) They need help engaging their study group.

So I made sure that I was laser focused on those two needs and I disabled many BuddyPress components to keep the platform simple.

Define the Solution

What features do you NEED?

Once you’ve determined the urgent needs of your ideal customer, clearly map out what your simple solution is. Don’t be tempted to add extra features that don’t directly meet that need. Once your community is successful you can expand the needs that you are serving and thereby the features you offer.

If you are competing with Facebook, you are doing it wrong

The BuddyPress community has gotten to a point where you can create a pretty convincing Facebook alternative. DON’T DO IT! Your BuddyPress site should offer something different from Facebook in terms of content and community. If your target audience had an option between using your platform or using Facebook (or some other already established social network) you’ll lose almost every time.

This is why StudyChurch focussed on solving the study distribution problem. If StudyChurch was just a place for study groups to chat, they’d end up using a Facebook group instead. And they should! Because that would be a better solution for them.

Why is BuddyPress the right solution for your community?

Once you know who your ideal customer is, what their needs are, and how you are going to solve them, it’s time to take an honest look at the appropriate tools. BuddyPress can inspire us to build amazing platforms and products, but that does not mean it is always the correct solution.

I’ve had several clients who I’ve discouraged from using BuddyPress in order to first start their community on an existing social network. It is far easier to begin a community on a platform that everyone is familiar with. Don’t worry, you can transition them to your BuddyPress site later.
You may find that what you really need is a solution for user’s to manage and share an extended profile. If that is the case, maybe consider a solution like Ultimate Member that has some great styling and features already laid out.

The bottom line here is that BuddyPress is just a tool. It won’t get its feelings hurt if you choose a tool that better suits your needs. And make sure you spend time researching alternative solutions.

Define the Experience

So far we’ve looked at defining the audience and then defining the solution. The third and final most important step here is to define the experience, both on the admin side of things and for your community. This means that it is not just important to have the solution for your ideal client’s needs, you must also deliver that solution effectively so that the client will actually use it.

How many times have you seen great ideas and solutions wasted because the interface was unusable.

Focus on user interface and flow

Make sure you consider the user interface and flow early on in the process. This includes details like registration, login, profile management, notifications, etc. You users should not be confused when they look at your site, it should be clear what they are supposed to do. This means that you need to know what you want your users to do.

This is one of the big reasons that you should use features sparingly especially when initially building a BuddyPress community. The more features you build, the more options your users will have and options confuse people. Provide solutions, not options.

On my way here I parked the car at a private lot by the airport and when I came up to the drive through window to confirm my reservation I was asked if I wanted to do self park or valet parking. This confused me because normally Valet parking is a “premium” feature, so I wasn’t sure if this would cost more or if there was an advantage to self parking. So I asked what the difference was and if there was any benefit to choosing one or the other. There wasn’t, so I picked valet parking. This wasn’t a huge deal but illustrates the communication challenges that come with options. Not only that but I had an otherwise positive experience with the company, so that option caused unnecessary confusion and affected my overall experience.

The moral to this story is that sometimes options and features make your product less effective.
I’ll share some tools later on that help with creating a good user flow.

Admin flow

The other aspect of things that you need to define from an experience standpoint is the admin experience. What are you going to do when your community expands and grows? Can you put more time into managing it? Don’t be afraid to reach out to members of your community to help moderate.

Setup paid memberships

Perhaps one way that you can free yourself up to spend more time on your community as it grows is to have a premium membership level. Consider if your solution can support restricting certain features or content to premium members.

This is actually helpful from 2 standpoints. 1) People tend to value more the things that they pay for, even if it’s just a few dollars a month 2) As the community expands so will your budget, and you can use that to bring on help to make sure you and your community stay healthy.

My goto plugin for BuddyPress membership sites is Restrict Content Pro. RCP is not only a complete membership system, but it is also built in a way that allows for a wide range of customization and extending. At iWitness Design we’ve actually built an add-on for RCP that adds some BuddyPress specific functionality.


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