Software Engineering in WordPress and Musings on the Deep Life

Supporting Free WordPress Plugins: Dedicated Hours

Supporting free WordPress plugins has been interesting to me for some time now because there are some inherent challenges with managing a freemium-based product.

Last week, WP Tavern covered a new project by ServerPress called WPSiteSync. It’s a neat plugin in and of itself, but what caught my attention was how ServerPress is structuring support for the free variation of the plugin.

Supporting Free WordPress Plugins

In short, the article mentions:

Support for the free version is only provided on Fridays from 10am-12PM Pacific standard time. A cursory glance at the support forum shows the ServerPress team responding to a number of threads.

And though there seems to be some pushback in the comments about this, I’m intrigued by this particular approach to support.

Supporting Free WordPress Plugins

Though I’ve done work with themes in the past, the majority of what I do now (and that I enjoy doing most) is with plugins. Though I still do the occasional theme implementation, I’m particularly interested in plugins.

  • In some cases, I see them as “applications for WordPress,”
  • Eric and I are working to spin up a part of Pressware specifically dedicated to plugins,
  • Much of the contract work I do is around building new or working on existing plugins,
  • I’m interested in other business models for plugins aside from the traditional freemium models.

When it comes to talking about the business of WordPress plugins, I think there’s still much to explore, discuss, and try. And yes, there’s both success and failure to be had.

Business Models of WordPress Plugins

Up to this point, I think we’ve primarily seen three models of WordPress plugins.

  1. Freemium in which one version is available in the WordPress Plugin Repository with an upsell available.
  2. Premium in which you must purchase access to the plugin. Of course, there are aspects regarding the GPL that would need to be handled, but that’s to be discussed later.
  3. Service-based (or perhaps SaaS) in which you can use the plugin, but certain features or components of it must communicate with a third-party server to store information, request information, and so on.

There are variations on all of the above, but I believe these are the ones we see the most right now.

It’s Not About The Models

The purpose of this post isn’t so much to discuss the various business models that are available, though. Instead, it’s to recognize how ServerPress is handling support for the free version of their plugin.

Though they may not be the first to do this, it’s certainly something worth noting, and it’s worth considering for ourselves. In short, I like what ServerPress has done when it comes to supporting their WordPress plugin.

Though I recognize support can sometimes serve as a form of marketing, I’ve been of the mindset that supporting free WordPress plugins may not be worth it.

I don’t mean this is a hard and fast rule for all plugins, though. After all, some simpler and may not require much support. That is, it either works, or it doesn’t. On the flipside, more advanced plugins will likely need some level of support.

Thus, the idea of offering a type of “office hours” for a free plugin is a smart idea. The business isn’t burdened with burning hours that could be used for generating revenue on something that doesn’t directly generate revenue. But they are dedicating hours to something that could generate revenue (and still, arguably, more importantly, keeping customers and users happy!).

If users aren’t paying for it and a company is providing the product for free of charge, then having a defined limit of support makes sense. And this is something that I, and others, could learn from when providing support for free plugins.


  1. Jason Lemieux

    I definitely like the idea of set hours for support. Thanks for highlighting it, Tom. I’m going to keep an eye on it and see how it works for them.

    As the maker of a complicated set of plugins (Postmatic/Epoch/Elevated Comments/Postmatic Social Commenting) we have struggled with offering support …. forever. One thing that is true and inevitable is that the more popular our plugins get, the harder it is to offer free support.

    I’m still not sure what to do in the long term. One thing is crystal clear about the free plugin community: the more you give, the more it expects. That still bothers me almost daily. I guess what I’m saying is that offering free support to kind users is fine. Our team’s capacity to do so is limitless. It’s offering free support to entitled and mean users that makes me want to walk away from free entirely. 

    We’ve been trying to craft a support policy which is not based necessarily on business hours, but instead on who the user is and what their role/standing in the WordPress community. My ideal would be that we spend our time on paying users, followed by fellow plugin or theme developers/contributors, then free users who are appreciative. And the rest can figure it out themselves. 

    We have pieces of this in our Helpscout flow but it’s not going to scale. Imagine this: a shared directory of users in which we developers get to give them star ratings. Forget rating plugins. Let’s rate users. Add an API to tie it to helpscout or whatever. Free, and available to any repo author with more than 2 or so active plugins.

    Can we? I’m going to have to pull in Josh Pollock to this one.

  2. Marc Benzakein

    The “how” of offering support on a free product is something we all struggle with; especially if we already have a product (or products) that we need to support. The quandary becomes, how do we offer support on a new product while remaining sure we can stay on top of giving our current customer base the service they expect from us? And, as Tom so eloquently put it, we’re not the only ones who have to consider it.

    People need products to make THEIR product profitable. Everyone loves free (I know I do). And, even if people like free things, we don’t believe that they generally wish to see the company go out of business.

    But offering support on a product through a system we have zero control over (WordPress Forums) adds another level of complication. We knew we would need to offer it (and, we WANT to offer it!), but we also knew we couldn’t be on a leash when we had people who actually reached into their pockets and entrusted us and our expertise in our areas.

    While the sampling size has been small from a time perspective, we have not gotten too much negative feedback. In fact, the surprise to us was that most of it has been positive, with quite literally, only a small handful of people who might have had issue with it.

    Also, as I mentioned in the Tavern article, those hours are our GUARANTEED hours. It’s not that we don’t check throughout the week, but it’s something we do as we can, as compared to expected dedicated hours. We really want to cause as little brain damage as possible and while WPSiteSync IS a pretty complex plugin, our intent IS to make it a plugin that just works. So, with that in mind, it benefits us to visit the forums often to address issues, recreate them if possible, or see how we might have misworded something to give someone the wrong impression about its functionality.

    Anyway, after all that, I’d really like to thank you for the post, and I’ll come back after we have more data and let you know how it goes (or maybe we’ll write a blog post about it down the road).

  3. Jennifer Cloake

    Sharing is Giving! This IS the beauty of the WordPress community.  I need to personally give credit to the crew at Modern Tribe for an educational video they did about a year and half ago.  Our forum “guaranteed service hours” was inspired by what they shared in that video.  If I remember correctly, 1) They post a sticky note in the forum that their response time is 7-10 days to set expectations.  2) They devote x amount of time each week to help in the forum. This gives them a bit more control in budgeting staff hours.  Since it’s always a juggling act between support and development time, we decided to take this a step further and set guaranteed weekly support hours.  People always know there’s a real live person, sitting there, ready to answer question between those hours.  This has worked very well for us since it satisfies our need to help the Community while ensuring great care to our Premium Customers.

  4. musgrove

    This is pretty smart from a marketing standpoint, as well as all the other standpoints that it involves. It seems like it would be easily workable and could even yield some good business. It’s a good compromise that allows the developer to maintain control of his resources. Honestly, it’s amazing that support is offered at ALL for free plugins or themes since I’m willing to bet 80% of the support requests are for things that aren’t exactly a burning priority or there’s just a plugin or theme conflict occurring somewhere. But the fact that it is, and at the pretty high level it is in many cases, is part of what makes the web such an incredible place. There’s a lot of high-quality code out there representing a lot of late nights leveraging the collaborative nature of the web.

    Michael Musgrove Owner web design POP, Ltd. Co. (502) 264-2353 [image: Twitter] [image: LinkedIn] [image: banner]

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