One of the nicest things about WordPress is how easy it is for developers to extend its functionality, and how easy it is for users to find plugins that help them enhance their blog.

All conversations about plugin quality and compatibility aside, WordPress plugin support is one area of development that often seems to be rarely discussed (unless I’m missing all the people talking about it!).

WordPress Plugin Support

WordPress Plugin Support Forum

To me, it’s an interesting situation: We spend our time developing free software for others to use which implies that we’re prepared to offer support for said software.

Don’t get me wrong – I, like many others, understand what I’m signing up for when I release a plugin for free and I enjoy helping others. After all, if I’ve released something for others to use and it causes a problem for them, I have an obligation to help resolve it.

The thing is, the potential for support of any given piece of free software doesn’t scale.

The Business of Supporting Free Software

The way I see it, there are only a handful of options each of which have their various tradeoffs. I’m going to layout each option and their tradeoffs because I’m interested to see where everyone falls on this particular issue.

Free Software, Free Support

If the paradigm of software and support is a spectrum, then this option sits at one end. Simply put, this is when a developer opts to spend his or her time developing software, releasing it, and offering full support for the plugin once its released, free of charge, for anyone who opens a ticket.

Obviously, this model is the one that the WordPress plugin repository makes available.

Free Software, Freemium Support

In this option, the developer releases a free plugin and then offers support up to a certain extent. After some arbitrary threshold is met (assuming that it’s been detailed in a README or some other form of documentation), s/he will then offer more detailed support for a charge.

For what it’s worth, this is the model that I tend to see cropping up the most right now.

Free Software, Paid Support

This particular model is also a popular one, but I’ve seem some argue that this is against the nature of free software. Here, a developer releases a plugin, but then charges for support of any kind.

Again, I see this model relatively frequently and I’ve even used it in conjunction with a freemium model in two plugins that I’ve reitred.

Free Software, No Support

Finally, just as the Free/Free model outlined above sits at one end of the spectrum, this model sits at the other end. In this scenario, a developer release his or her plugin into the wild, and then ignores all support requests regardless of how they’re submitted – forum, email, Twitter, whatever.

Though I rarely see this, I do think it’s worth mentioning simply because it sits as one of the available options.

What’s a Developer To Do?

The bottom line is that when it comes to releasing free software, there are options for offering support.

Personally, I don’t think it’s an all-or-nothing solution: each plugin is different so how we offer support various; however, support doesn’t scale if a plugin becomes popular. There’s a tipping point by which the demand placed on the developer exceeds what s/he’s able to supply and they’re ultimately spending billable hours offering support.

With all of that laid out, I’m interested to know where you guys stand (and why)?

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Join the conversation! 9 Comments

  1. I talked to a fellow freelancer the other day who had run into an issue hacking a theme for a client. The client wanted a certain functionality which turned out to require some serious javascript tweaking and the script wasn’t commented at all.

    Hoping for support my friend had opened a ticket in the theme author’s forum, but the guy hadn’t replied in days. I finally asked if he (my friend) had made a donation in order to show he was willing to give (having been given a supreme them already), or even more, if he had tried to hire the theme author to complete the job for him. He (my friend), a developer himself and a very sensible guy as well, totally had forgotten about those options!

    I’m not talking about “bribing” people to prefer your support request before others, but I do believe showing your appreciation instead of just talking about it can totally make the difference for the soul at the other end of the line.

    (Btw, very nice how that Gravatar’s pulled in while I’m still filling in the form!)

    • It’s funny that you bring up a commenting issue with the JavaScript source because I’m currently working on a series for Envato in which I cover strategies and reasons for doing exactly that.

      Anyway, you’re right – it’s not about bribing at all, it’s more about offering a higher-level of support than what can typically be answered in the free support forum – I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

  2. I haven’t released most of my plugins on WordPress.org for this exact reason. The support people are looking for on Github is different. I’ve had a few people need features in a plugin and they’ve got in touch with me directly with offer of payment for the feature.

    It always seems to me that people feel entitled to all your time unbilled for free plugins on WordPress.org.

    • Yeah – on GitHub people are usually more interested in features or bug fixes rather than getting it working with a theme or conflicting plugin.

      It always seems to me that people feel entitled to all your time unbilled for free plugins on WordPress.org.

      Some do, sure, but I think that’s our responsibility to help when we can, and educate when we can. There’s certainly a free level of support we can offer, but educating them on the benefits of a greater level support falls on us, too.

      At least, that’s how I’ve seen it and how I’ve treated it. It’s hit or miss, though.

  3. I agree that if you release something for public use, you have an obligation to ensure it does what it says it will do – and does it well. And part of that means handling support questions. (Which is why I despair at posts such as: http://adii.me/make-customers-pay.)

    Perhaps oddly, of those who have donated to plug-ins I’ve built, the vast majority are those who have experienced (sometimes major) bugs in the plug-in, which we then subsequently resolved. Generally, people respond to good support or ‘customer’ service. The developer gets something out of free support too: users are less likely to ditch and switch when they experience problems, so you’re able to identify and fix bugs in your plug-ins quicker.

    Of course, it doesn’t scale – and you won’t make a living on donations. You do need to draw the line somewhere. And for the most part support questions are feature requests or ‘How do I do X, Y & Z’. I don’t feel the same obligation to spend much effort on these, but I do try to respond: its interesting to see how your plug-in is/could be used, what features are in demand etc, and yes – I want people to be using my plug-ins :).

    While I have plans to release some premium add-ons and move to a freemium model of support, I personally don’t mind offering a level of free support. And its quite cliché, but it’s giving back to the community. The total amount I have paid in learning WordPress, using and developing plug-in is… 0. So I don’t mind spending a bit of my time…

  4. It’s a tricky question here, and it’s especially frequently discussed on ThemeForest as it’s pain in the *** for theme developers there. Yeah, they’re selling a product for 30-40-50 bucks but it’s a product worth more than $10K and people regularly ignore documentation and video guides and keep asking dumb questions, ask for extra features and keep complaining about options that have never been listed in the agreement (to say, the theme page description before purchasing a product).

    I find it even trickier as there is some cash involved after all, whilst free software is totally free after all and no obligation should be explicitly required from a developer offering a free product. Certainly, if that is a personal choice or a beginning of a business (like: getting consultancy work for adding new features, or premium support for a free product, etc) it’s a different case.

    I’m personally trying to resolve incompatibility issues ASAP for my free products, and add to the backlog any ‘nice to have’ options for further releases. If a paying gig is on the horizon, it’s handled based on the load.

  5. I released a free slideshow plugin on WordPress.org a couple of years ago that became pretty popular. (250k downloads so far.) The requests for support quickly became more than I could handle in my limited free time, so I created a premium version of the plugin with more features. We encourage people to use the free version and lots of people do, but if you want guaranteed support, you have to get the paid version of the plugin.

    We’ve found that lots of people buy the paid version just to support the software, whether they need the extra features or not. And a lot of people do upgrade for the support. Having a free version with a paid upgrade is a great model for us.

  6. As a web developer but not a plugin developer I find that I’m comfortable paying for plugins, themes and support. I don’t want to fanny about with things that don’t work. It’s fair to expect developers to charge for their time. If that’s for support of a free theme or charging for the theme and then offering support – either is good for the customer and the developer.

    Free is a great price. But you get what you pay for.

  7. So why not just outsource the support e.g. use a service that provides support to plugin end users on behalf of the plugin developers? Seems like that would save the developer a ton of time.

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