Practical WordPress Development

Making the Shift to Premium WordPress Plugins

When it comes to various business models that surround WordPress plugins, there are normally three types:

  1. Completely free
  2. Freemium
  3. Premium

How a developer opts to publish their plugin is their prerogative, and there are a lot of opinions as to why any one model is better than any of the other models. As with anything, each has its own set of advantages, and each person’s opinion is not necessarily any better than any other person’s opinion.

That said, as someone who has tried all three business models, I have to say that the longer I work in this particular economy, the more I lean towards the third option.

Though I’m not saying I dislike the other two, and though I’m not interested in discussing the advantages and disadvantages of the first two (at least in this post), I am interested in sharing my thoughts on the premium model (or the pay-for-it model or whatever you want to call it.

Aiming for Premium WordPress Plugins

First, I know that there’s a lot of commentary about premium plugins, their long term viability, whether or not they should even be premium, and so on.

  • Some people quote others as saying all plugins should be free,
  • Some say that you should donate at least a dollar to a plugin,
  • Some say that you should calculate the net worth of your site, divide it out among the components that make it up, and then donate that amount to the plugin author
  • …and so on.

On a long enough timeline, I think end up hearing every thing that can be said about the topic (or any topic, for that matter). But time keeps going, so something new always crops up.

Anyway, this post has nothing to do with anything about any of the above. In short, I’m heavily learning towards moving to a premium-plugin only model and shifting all work under Pressware for a number of reasons.

I wanted to share them here if for no other reason than discussing it with those of you who are also involved in plugin development.

1. Support

When you work in the open source world and you sell products, you find that a significant amount of your time is spent in supporting the products that you sell.

Sure, development is also another area, but if you’ve yet to sell a product in the open source marketplace, do not underestimate the amount of support that it will require. There are a number of reasons for this one of which is having to deal with compatibility issues with your work, WordPress, themes, and other plugins.

Assume that you’re a top-tier developer who follows all of the standards, employs design patterns when necessary, writes clean, efficient, organized, and maintainable code (does this person even exist? ;), and then someone installs your work alongside three other plugins written by people who have completely ignored all of the above either out of lack of experience or simply just to get something working, you’re going to have your hands full.

For whatever reason – some variation of Murphy’s Law, perhaps – you’re going to be contacted and need to provide support for your work because it appears broken against all the rest. Maybe it was the most recently installed, maybe your name is the only actual reputable one.

Who knows. But you’re the guy or girl who has to take care of this.

Whatever the case, support takes time away from a number of things, and time’s our most precious resource. To that end, there should be charge for support. And since we’re supporting our plugins, we should charge for our plugins.

2. Work (Or “Make Your Own Job”)

I realize that open source does amazing things for educating other people especially as it relates to those who are passionate about programming. One of the greatest benefits of open source code is the free distribution of it.

The sheer variety of things that you can learn from the open source community is amazing, isn’t it? We’ve got everything from web browsers, blogging applications, JavaScript libraries, and even full on operating systems all of which are available for us to study.

To assume that I want to stifle that is wrong.

People make money off of free software all of the time. In fact, some of the most successful WordPress plugins both in terms of customer base and in terms of sales are all open source. There’s no reason a premium product can’t be made available on GitHub (or another similar site) but also available for purchase.

For some, there is a time in which the work that you’re doing must likely be done in order not only to further your career, but to further support yourself, your family (if you have one), or the things that you own.

So if you can continue to contribute to the open source economy, and can earn a living off of doing so – that is, you can create your own job, so to speak – why not do that?

Sure, we all have different situations and there’s no prescriptive, one-size-fits-all solution, but there are options for those who need it. This is just one of them.

3. Quality

Although there isn’t a hard and fast rule on this, there’s something to be said about paying for software. Ideally, when you pay for something, you’re paying for quality.

This is not to imply that when something is made available for free that it’s of low quality, but it’s simply to state that the person who is making the product available has a personal stake in its success.

That is, s/he is personally invested not only in the success of the product but in the utility it provides you.

Thus, quality is almost a pre-requisite because one terrible product or one terrible experience can completely ruin a sellers reputation with a consumer and now, more than ever, word of mouth can make or break a company.

To that end, it’s not unreasonable to assume that premium plugins are going to have a level of quality about them that free plugins may not offer. Again, to make sure that I’m not raising any eye brows in the wrong direction, I’m not saying that free plugins aren’t made with quality, nor am I saying there aren’t poorly written premium plugins – I am saying that there are exceptions.

And when a person is selling a plugin, then it’s more likely than not that the product they are selling is going to have a high-level of quality, compatibility, and support.

Anything Else?

As I mentioned earlier, all of this is coming from personal experience, but I’ve really shared more reasons as to why I think premium plugins is a good idea.

In short, I’ve released a number of free plugins – only a handful, really – and I love that they help provide people tools and value for their site, but do not underestimate the number of emails that I receive about issues that occur with them, and some of the time it takes to handle the free customers.

And 99% of the time has to do with compatibility issues with poorly written themes or other plugins.

This is not a knock against the customers, either. I, on my own volition, released the plugin for free, and I don’t have to support it at all if I choose not to do so. I just happen to think that there should be some base-level of support.

That’s just me.

Anyway, as with most people, we get further into our careers, we get busier, we get older, and we change our minds about things.

To that end, and because I’m working to lay a foundation for a company that serves bloggers well, I’m going to begin taking plugins in the premium direction.

I’ll likely have fewer customers, but that’s okay. I’d rather be arming the few with the best tools that I can create for them and offering them the support for which they pay than any of the alternatives.

But that’s just me. I’m interested in your opinion, too.


  1. Tyler Jones

    Tom – I absolutely think this makes sense. I think one of the best examples of this approach is Gravity Forms. Two great things about paying for Gravity Forms is that 1) I know they have high quality code – they have to in order to sustain a business, and 2) I know they’ll be around to provide support and continue developing new add-ons/features.

    For me, saving a few bucks by using a free plugin isn’t always worth it when a paid option exists that provides those benefits.

    Can’t wait to see what you release :)

    • Tom

      Two great things about paying for Gravity Forms is that 1) I know they have high quality code – they have to in order to sustain a business, and 2) I know they’ll be around to provide support and continue developing new add-ons/features.

      Absolutely. Rocket Genius and the guys and girls on the team are fantastic.

      Can’t wait to see what you release :)

      Don’t expect something as advanced as Gravity Forms :). I’m starting very small, but I’ve gotta work my way up to more complex.

      Right now, I’m focused solely on creating tools for bloggers that are as simple as possible, yet offer features and a user experience that require as little direction as possible.

      Over time, I’d love to create something significantly more complex. That’s not to say that I don’t have my ideas, I just need the time … and to finish up other work on my roadmap ;).

  2. Nate Wright

    It makes sense that you lean towards a fully-premium model the longer you’ve been around. One of the primary benefits of a freemium model is that it provides a strong channel for onboarding people to your product. A well-known and respected member of the community can generate enough confidence and publicity around a premium plugin to forego this channel — provided the marketplace which might be interested in their product is clued into the community. I suspect a lot of people who come to a plugin like SEO by Yoast, for instance, don’t know who Yoast is until they’ve encountered the plugin. But the market for Ninja Demo is probably pretty in-touch with the WordPress ecosystem.

    For the rest of us, a freemium model is a good way of establishing a reputation and exposing ourselves to potential customers. It’s also a good way of benefiting from one of the greatest strengths of OSS — the ease with which others can audit open code.

    • Tom

      One of the primary benefits of a freemium model is that it provides a strong channel for onboarding people to your product.

      Exactly. You do get a lot of eyes on it especially if you release it in a place like the plugin repository, but how many conversions does it actually create?

      I don’t have any hard numbers, but I’ve noticed in a number of experiments that I’ve done that the free always results in more support and requests than for those who pay, which is why I think I’m done with that.

      The ease with which others can audit open code.

      Exactly. You really do reap so many benefits from good programmers who do this.

      • Nate Wright

        It’s definitely something worth considering. In my case, the support process is actually a really fruitful onboarding channel. That’s probably down to the fact that I offer a suite of related products, so someone who comes for support with one free plugin is exposed to several products they might be interested in. I actually find one of my most successful conversion rates comes from free plugin -> support/help -> theme purchase. That gives me a really strong incentive to provide great support for the free plugin. But I’m only able to do that because the volume is low (niche plugins will never get that many downloads per day) and the traffic is very valuable.

  3. Harold Glascock

    This is an excellent article all the way through, balanced, thoughtful and easy to grasp.
    The bug bear of customer service is one of the main barriers to getting into the WP plugin business anyway you cut it.
    I am wondering whether there is an y logical path for the novice to get in the game without undue pain.
    Does this make any sense?
    -Identify 3 to 5 plugin topic types that WP users will consistently pay money for
    -find a course on the ins and outs of WP plugin dev and create a free ‘mock up’ plugin for a review by an expert like yourself.
    -create a plugin compliance checklist
    -persuade 2 capable plugin freelancers to join your service team so they can be go to guys for pesky issues.
    -Hire Zen Desk or Create a bespoke WP plugin helpdesk. Charge x for fix its that require the sales rep to go into the WP site settings.
    -introduce a WP plugin apprentice service in which new plugin developers agree to forego say 50% of the initial sales revenue to you as the expert in exchange for mentoring and your soft endorsement on the sales page.
    -set up a WP plugin technical news sheet to be circulated to the Premium Plugin Dev Community.
    -Codify best practices into an ebook for sale on Gumroad replete with screenshots.
    Thanks & Best Wishes,

    • Tom

      This is an excellent article all the way through, balanced, thoughtful and easy to grasp.

      Thanks so much – I really appreciate that.

      I am wondering whether there is an y logical path for the novice to get in the game without undue pain. Does this make any sense?

      It does! I do think that some people may need to cut their teeth on building a few free plugins first before jumping right into the fray of premium products, but it’s nothing that gumption, focus, and sheer willingness to actually do it can’t handle.

      Anyway, you’ve definitely got the wheels churning for something that could be a potential eBook. There’s several, at this point, I’d love to write but I just don’t know when I’ll actually be able to sit down and do it.

  4. James Bayley

    The mobile market is completely dominated by in-app purchases. The prevalent model is to establish a large user base and then monetise it.

    The key driver for this is that users know that most apps are rubbish and want to try before they buy. I agree with Nate above, it makes most sense to go to Paid Only when you have a strong brand.

    There are several steps to customer engagement
    1. Awareness
    2. Engagement
    3. Purchase
    4. Advocacy

    Freemium is very effective for steps 1 and 2. As a marketeer you will carefully measure your progression rate down the funnel.

    • Tom

      The key driver for this is that users know that most apps are rubbish and want to try before they buy. I agree with Nate above, it makes most sense to go to Paid Only when you have a strong brand.

      Agreed – but knowing when you’ve achieved that status can be a bit of a gamble unless you’ve really ridden the freemium model for sometime.

      Those four steps are really interesting, though – valuable stuff. Thanks for sharing that, James :).

      • James Bayley

        Thank you for welcoming my feedback. This has spurred me on to give a little 101 on market economics.

        The barriers to entry in the WordPress market are very low. You just need a brain and an internet connection and there millions of people with those. Profits (i.e. Developer income) are the difference between Supply and Demand. Since there are more people selling than buying prices are very very low. Oversupply has had consequences;

        As others have commented there is little differentiation in the Theme market and buyers find it difficult determine high quality goods. This is a classic market for lemons.

        To compete in a such a market you must have a strong brand. A “brand” is a mark of quality in a commodity market. Stronger brands command higher prices for the same goods ;Budweiser sells for more than Bodweiser. In our market, Gravity Forms charges 3x more than Formidable Forms (say), is this because it is 3x better. No, it is because its brand is 3x stronger.

        Once a developer has an established product that fits a market need then almost every dollar he spends should be on brand building – do not spend your time adding features until every person who “should” have your product has bought it. You can still have the fun of writing code but do it to support building the engagement funnel and then pushing people down it.

  5. Indu jain

    Hi Tom,
    These days WordPress websites are getting hacked easily due to some flaws in plug-in. This is one of the major reasons for webmasters to select premium plugin for security of their websites. So its better to provide more emphasis on it.

    • Tom

      You definitely have a point in that premium plugins should be more secure than free ones; however, this is no guarantee. There are high-quality free plugins, and low-quality premium plugins.

      There should be a better way to vet them, but that’s where I think branding comes into play. Once you have a trusted brand behind a plugin, it’s worth the cost of the plugin for the piece of mind (let alone the support, updates, etc.).

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