Plugin developers are the heart and soul of WordPress. WordPress plugin developers not only extend the core functionality of WP but they drive innovation for the popular blogging platform. Compared to other blogging platforms, WordPress arguably possesses the strongest and most generous community of all. Despite this however, WP plugin developers receive very little compensation for their efforts to supply the WP plugin repository with quality free plugins. Many developers reach a point at which they are simply unable to continue long-term support their plugins. This is largely due to the maintenance and support costs incurred for their plugins which far exceed the revenue generated by the donation based business model which most plugin developers utilize.
Donations Alone Aren’t Sustainable
WordPress has always pushed to make plugins and themes hosted at WordPress.org freely available under a General Public License (GPL). This has helped distinguish WordPress from some other blogging platforms and has enabled WordPress to become the most popular blogging platform available today. This business model obviously works very well for WordPress but it does very little for WordPress plugin developers. That is, they put in great amount of time, effort, and money into creating and supporting these plugins but the benefits for doing so pale in comparison as they rarely receive donations for their work.
Last year I asked both Alex King and Lester ‘GaMerZ’ Chan if they knew the percentage of people that contributed a donation after downloading a plugin. Alex replied to my email and said, “I’d say maybe .5%? Maybe lower…” whereas Mr. Chan explained that, “I would say less than 1% based on my 4 years of doing plugin”. Altogether both plugin creators currently have a combined total of 43 plugins (Alex King: 26, Lester Chan: 17) available for free download at the official WordPress plugin repository. Upon answering the same question, Donncha O Caoimh, of the popularly downloaded WP Super Cache plugin, replied, “I don’t have an exact figure but it’s probably far less than 1%”, “I’d be rather happy if each of them even donated a dollar!”. Alex Rabe, author of the heavily used NextGEN Gallery plugin, supplied me with some donation statistics saying, “Less than 1 percent for NextGEN Gallery, 800,000 downloads and approx. 200 donations”. That actually works out to be a donation rate of 0.025%! That’s completely ridiculous! Providing quality support for these plugins is practically a full time job for these guys and donations clearly don’t cover the costs. Because of this, many plugin developers aren’t able to provide free long-term support/maintenance for their plugin and either 1) compatibility falls behind, 2) another developer is needed to assume responsibility to support/maintain the plugin, or 3) the plugin is abandoned altogether.
In a recent discussion with Joost de Valk, I expressed my concern about the challenges that face WordPress plugin developers and the need for a viable, rewarding business model to ensure continued quality plugin development and support. Joost currently provides free support for his 26 plugins at WordPress.org, works full time at Orange Valley, blogs about WordPress SEO tips at Yoast.com, does freelance WP plugin development and web marketing work, and somehow finds time to attend WordPress SEO speaking engagements. Joost proudly displays donation requests on his site in an attempt to cover his costs for maintaining and supporting his plugins but he too knows that donations are not a sustainable long-term business model for WordPress plugin developers. With less than 0.1% of WP users submitting donations after downloading one of his plugins and support and maintenance requiring so much of his time, he’s seriously considering the alternatives:
“Even with my current workload it’s never less than 10 and usually more like 20 hours a week spent on support and upgrades etc…”, “It’s just not sustainable like this.”
Alternative Business Models For WP Plugin Developers
1. Premium Plugins – Paid plugins indeed offer a sustainable alternative for developers but the WordPress regulations don’t allow for paid plugins to be hosted at WordPress.org. Thus there’s greater challenges and expenses involved with this business model to effectively increase awareness of a plugin throughout the WP community. Support for paid plugins is usually very good as most developers know that plugin sales depend on customer satisfaction. Hence, providing poorly supported plugins will eventually damage the developer’s reputation and hinder the success of the plugin.
2. Freemium Plugins – This business model for WP plugins includes offering a free basic version of the plugin at WordPress.org and selling upgrades to the plugin elsewhere (i.e. the developer’s website). The quality and promptness of free support for the basic plugin may vary quite a bit across plugins and developers however. The WP e-Commerce plugin owners have been utilizing this business model for several years.
3. Paid Support – Like the freemium business model this strategy allows for the plugin to be included at the WordPress plugin repository. Support, however, is provided by the developer on a per cost basis and may include such things as theme compatibility issues or paid installation. The potential income that could be obtained by the developer may not rival that of the other two business models though as I could see many customers outsourcing support needs in an attempt to reduce expenses. For example, if the plugin’s creator is charging $100 for specific support request and another individual says they’ll provide support for only $50, it’s a no-brainer that the developer is going to lose-out many times. I would hope that the plugin’s author would be selected to complete the support request as I believe that no one should be able to provide better support than the plugin’s creator but unfortuantely not everyone sees it that way.
4. Ad Supported – This business model depends on the revenue generated by advertisements or sales of other products. I’m guessing that this would be just as unsuccessful as donations but I don’t have any real numbers to back this up. I haven’t personally seen any advertisements embedded into a plugin’s settings page but I have observed plugins that display such things as their creator’s Amazon Wishlists (i.e. Google XML Sitemap plugin). Again, I’m guessing that traditional CPC advertisements wouldn’t fair well with the WP community and I imagine it would just be a matter of time before someone posted a revised version that didn’t include the ads. Moreover, the number of impressions, or click-throughs for a plugin’s settings page is very low. Therefore, I submit to you that advertisements alone are not a viable solution either as the potential for income is very small.
5. A Combination Model – This would entail using any combination of the models described above. For instance, maybe instead of selling the plugin outright, the developer draws on all the other plugin business models for sustainability (i.e. donations + ads + paid support + paid upgrades).
Plugin Developers Aren’t Alone
The struggle to find an acceptable and sustainable business model for WordPress developers is nothing new. Theme designers have struggled with this issue for many years. Brian Gardner has been a pioneer in WordPress theme development by demonstrating a sustainable premium themes business model as well as venturing out to incorporate a GPL based paid support business model for his WordPress themes as well. Joost de Valk recently joined forces with Brian through a partnership to improve the SEO of Brian’s StudioPress themes. This too is nothing new for plugin developers as, unlike successful WP theme developers, many must do consultation work and/or hold full time non-plugin development jobs.
Why Premium Plugins Make Sense
While many WordPress fans believe that all plugins should be free, it’s actually in the best interest of the developers and the WP community to adopt a business model that helps improve upon the quality and life of WordPress plugins. The premium themes business model worked because the quality of free themes was much less than that of the premium themes. By creating better quality themes that were more attractive, WordPress in turn became more attractive to people as a blogging platform. The same may be said for premium WordPress plugins in that support for a free plugin cannot rival the level of support one could provide if he/she was paid to do so.
Why WordPress Should Sell Premium Plugins
It’s actually quite surprising to me in this age of thriving application platforms (i.e. iPhone App Store, Android Marketplace) that WordPress hasn’t offered a similar platform that gives back to its developers. Let’s consider for a moment if every plugin in the official WordPress repository required a mandatory donation of a mere $1 to download and complete the installation. Most WordPress bloggers don’t use that many plugins so the overall expense for them would probably be less than $20 in total. That’s very inexpensive for the blog owner, yet it could do wonders for the developer (especially in this economy) and give WordPress a nice development boost as well. Developers would not only be able to finally afford to adequately support and maintain their plugins but they could then refocus their attention to further enriching their plugins. Perhaps more importantly they would have more time to explore other plugin development ideas which would ultimately benefit the community and drive innovation for WordPress.
I believe many developers that employ the freemium or premium plugin business model have and will find success but I’m not as confident about a business model that depends solely on paid support for sustainability. One thing is for certain however; donations alone do not cover the plugin developer’s costs to maintain and support his/her plugins in the long run. It is my hope that by posting this article you will engage in this discussion to stimulate ideas to ensure that great plugin developers like Alex King, Donncha O Caoimh, Alex Rabe, Lester Chan, and Joost de Valk will continue to develop awesome plugins for the WordPress community. Please take a minute to let us know what your thoughts are on this important issue by leaving your comments below. If you know of anyone that may be interested in this discussion, please invite them to join the conversation by sharing this article with them using any of the services listed below. Thank you.
Update: Michael Torbert, author of the All in One SEO Pack plugin, emailed me saying “The approximate percentage of users who donate is .013%. This includes donations ranging from a few cents to tens of dollars, with a mean donation of $11″.If you liked this article, please take this time to share it with your Facebook friends using the Facebook button (see Facebook post button to the left) or retweet it using Twitter (see retweet button to the left). You may also want to follow us or subscribe to the site to stay up-to-date with this article. If you'd rather follow us from your Facebook account, join our Facebook fan page or subscribe to our NetworkedBlogs profile.
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