Despite the widespread belief that can be distilled from rude comments and reviews on the wp.org plugin repo, maintaining a free plugin is not free. It doesn’t matter whether you charge for a plugin or not, hours still go into it! And while you may argue how bad a plugin is because you found two bugs in it someone invested time and money into it. Due to an overwhelming amount of abandoned plugins in the repository, I decided to clarify a simple premise – how do free plugins get financed and why the lack of money is the number one cause of abandoned plugins.
Just because something is free for you it doesn’t mean it materialized itself out of thin air. Consequently, just because a plugin is free, it doesn’t mean it magically appeared on the developer’s computer.
The models and perils of running a free plugin
By no means is there a finite amount of ways people finance their free plugins. Imagination knows no limits, but statistics are often cruel and show that ninety-something percent of ideas fall into just a few buckets. Hence, stats say, most WordPress plugins fall into one of the buckets described below.
Most resources needed to create a WordPress plugin are apparent even to people who are not “in the WP business.” You need a developer. It would be nice to have a designer too so the GUI doesn’t look like the developer made it. A few people to test it are by no means a must but would find bugs before the plugin goes into the wild. Asking for usability experts and video producers to make how-to video would be too much, but if they would somehow materialize in front of us to help – nobody would object. Same goes for support staff and social media experts and someone for content marketing. See where this is going? You can make something that resembles a three-wheeled car, but you can also make a space-rocket. So don’t put down people who wear many hats to make the best possible plugin they can.
The Private Repo Guy
You need a plugin, so you code it. Honestly, the only reason you put it up in the official repo is so that you can easily install the plugin from the admin dashboard. If possible, you’d make the plugin private, and you want it to stay private. Getting thousands of users is not what you’re after. The plugin is your weekend project, and you work on it when and as much as you like. But what happens if the plugin suddenly gets discovered by the WP masses?
Nothing good! People will expect the same focus and support from you as they expect from any other plugin. There are no “private” plugins in the repo. They are all public, and your desire to keep it under the radar is, well, just your desire. We don’t care! We want a new version every three weeks and at least a dozen new features.
While I can understand the desire to have a “private plugin hosted in a public repository so that it’s available in WP admin” I’ll also say this works while you keep it under the radar. And when that ends, you have to adhere to the rules of the masses. Just as everyone else does. So how is this a model to sustain a free plugin? It’s not, but it’s a model that people use.
In my book, the best model for keeping a plugin sustained, supported and maintained. Everybody gets the free version. It has to be functional, “good enough” and perform a certain task reasonably well for “not so demanding” users. You have to provide support as well, perhaps not on a 24/7 regime as for paid customers but also not in a “we answer when we answer” manner.
Those users who need more functions, options, and want to get guaranteed support within a specified period, they pay for the premium version. Not a complicated concept, however, what makes it complicated is the ratio of free versus paid users. The whole free plugin is merely a marketing channel and if it doesn’t convert it’s not feasible to keep investing in it, or more bluntly said – it’s not reasonable to continue maintaining the free plugin.
Despite the gray moral area described above, real-world examples have shown that the model functions quite well. Some joggling is required to keep a decent conversion rate while not inconveniencing free users with too many ads or crippled functionality. The main reason why this works is money. Companies earn money from the premium plugin and then invest it in their marketing channels which happen to be free plugins. Nobody is fooling anyone with “free”. Money is made and reinvested.
If you have a plugin in the repo and more and more people are using it – monetize it today! Not because you’re greedy but because it’s the only way to ensure the plugin will be alive a year or two from now.
We Have Money to Burn
You don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t understand WordPress or the basics of how the economy works but, somehow you have all this money to burn so you set about building a great plugin and investing in promoting it. Or, you buy a plugin that already has a substantial user-base. Things are looking good! You’re contributing to the community; everyone likes you because you’re not a “freemium sellout.”
A few months or a year passes, and you decide to walk away. Maybe it was a troll’s 1/5 review, or you’ve burned all your money, or just realized this isn’t going anywhere. The result? A hundred thousand users now depend on an abandoned plugin.
“Users got what they paid for” – nothing for nothing. That’s not an entirely false premise. The problem is, your plan, or lack of it, was problematic from the get-go. The lingering, semi-dead plugin you left might be the repositories problem. They should give abandoned plugins up for adoption, and they do! But that takes care of the consequences not the cause of the problem which is the evident lack of quid quo pro!
You run a translation agency and want more WordPress clients. Create a free plugin that translates via Google API and then offer your services to those who need better non-automated translations.
You’re a WordPress developer and need more clients. You want ones that value your ability to create a plugin that’s used by thousands. Fair enough – invest time into the free plugin and get better-paying clients.
In both cases, it’s clear what everyone invests and gets back. I’m not claiming the business won’t fail and consequently leave plugins for dead in the repo. But at least there was a tentative, long-term plan to keep them going.
Bottom line? Money! Period.
I know how greedy or pessimistic that sounds. I also know my local store is not willing to give me a pound of potatoes for “ten thousand fresh downloads” of my plugin. They expect cash. And since nobody is willing to pay for those downloads directly, it means money has to come from somewhere.
Treating anybody’s time as worthless is rude! Developers tend to say “it only took me four days to code that plugin” implying that it was simple. Others hear that as “I have plenty of time that’s free” – it’s not! Keeping a free plugin in top shape and supporting thousands of users doesn’t come cheap. Hundreds of hours go into numerous things. For a while, that can function on enthusiasm, but sooner or later money comes into play. We all have to eat!