The plugin developer market is fiercely competitive. There are many individuals and development teams out there trying to make a living at this, so turning a profit is a must.
Still, there are thousands of free plugins currently available in the WordPress plugin directory.
And that got me thinking. Why are so many people willing to give their work away for free? And is developing and distributing free plugins actually a worthwhile strategy when your main goal is to make money as a developer? It’s a lot to ponder, that’s for certain.
That’s what I’m going to attempt to answer here today. You may not agree with me (and I’m sure you’ll let me know if you don’t in the comments) but I hope that you at least enjoy hearing my perspective on the issue.
Why People Develop Plugins
Allow me to revisit a post our editor, Tom Ewer, wrote last year. In it, he cites three different reasons developers do what they do. The three types of developers he summarized were:
- “Those who develop plugins for themselves and release them on WordPress.org so that others can use them too.
- Those who develop plugins for themselves and release them on WordPress.org with the aim of monetizing their venture at some point in the future.
- Those who develop plugins with a clear plan for monetization.”
He concluded that the first type of developer is a rarity and that most fall in the second category. I agree with this. Most developers who create plugins and make them available for free do have an end goal of monetization in mind, even if it’s a distant thought for the future. Because everyone wants to make money, right?
But let’s say you’re business-minded straight out of the gate. What path should you take then? Are free WordPress plugins still a worthy venture? I believe there are, absolutely. So let’s spend some time today discussing why that is, shall we?
Build Your Brand and Reputation
Getting started in the plugin market is by far the most difficult challenge developers face. Finding an entry point can be difficult, not to mention figuring out a way to differentiate yourself from the competition. However, creating at least one free plugin gives you the opportunity to build your brand. This is only beneficial, however, if you really throw your heart and soul into it. That plugin needs to be good as your future rep as a developer depends on it.
A good free plugin shows WordPress users and developers that you’re someone to pay attention to. It can also establish consumer trust. When someone tries out your free plugin and is pleased, they’ll be more willing to make a purchase once you release a premium plugin at some point later down the line.
“It can really be worth the time in developing and supporting [free plugins], as long as you make something interesting and useful enough for mass market appeal,” says Andy Eades, a WordPress developer with Elevate Web,
A stepping stone is to create a freemium plugin. “Add some additional functionality to your plugins that will help you to benefit more from this model,” Eades says. Basically, you’ll make it so you can make some money off of a repackaged and upgraded version of your free plugin. The extra features you offer have to be worthwhile, however, and really add something new to the plugin if you have any hope of profiting. No one’s going to pay for something they could easily get for free.
A Jumping Off Point
“Offering free plugins seems to be the best way to get into the market,” says Brandon Howard, owner of All My Web Needs, a custom web design company, and WP Tooling, a WordPress plugin company. “Using the popularity and trust of wordpress.org we are able to list our products and almost immediately start getting downloads,” he says.
As mentioned above, this is an excellent way to start building your brand and establishing yourself as a plugin developer of note. And the experience of having your plugin(s) exposed to such a wide audience right away is highly educational.
You can receive a lot of feedback from people in the support forum on the WordPress directory. If you’re savvy, you’ll take this feedback to heart and really listen to what people have to say. Make the changes that are suggested to you and use the experience to build better – perhaps, premium – plugins in the future.
A free plugin is also a great way to generate interest for any premium plugins you currently offer. “[They] can be a very useful way of generating both links and a userbase,” says Eades. Links to your plugin page and profile page in the WordPress directory means increased traffic to your website – if you include your site link in your profile, that is.
Howard concurs. “If we build our plugin download page correctly, we can also start out with a pretty decent search engine ranking,” he says. “That way users searching for the types of plugins we offer can find us just about anywhere with minimal effort.” And that’s what you want. The less work your potential customers have to perform to find out about you and to make a purchase, the better.
If your ultimate goal is to sell freemium or premium plugins one day and you’re using a free plugin as an entry point, you should consider developing a joint strategy between your WordPress plugin directory list, your WordPress profile, and your website. Fill everything out in its entirety. Follow the tips discussed in our “How to Market WordPress Plugins and Themes” post. Make the most of the space you’re given and make sure your website acts as a resourceful supplement.
You want to keep people on your site once they click through, so keep it interesting, people!
There’s an obvious drawback to giving away plugins for free: you don’t make any money off of it. “It’s a lot of work to put in and get no monetary return from the get go,” Howard says. Plus, having to offer continual support for these free plugins means your work extends even further than the initial creation of the product.
Starting out with premium plugins would give you the funds to “commit to further development and support and to also access paid marketplaces, which can generate more exposure for your plugins,” says Eades.
But the opportunity to build a platform using a free plugin then offering up for-purchase products is a sound business model if you plan on developing more than one plugin in your lifetime. Ultimately, you need to ask yourself, “What do I want out of this?” Let that guide you into making the right decision for your future as a developer.
I believe developing free WordPress plugins is totally worth the effort you want to monetize in the future. It gives you a platform. It builds your brand and reputation. And it gives you the opportunity to get feedback as you create new plugins. No, you won’t be making money right away but that can be okay when viewed as a part of a larger business strategy.
Now here comes the fun part: what do you think? I want to hear from other developers. Are free WordPress plugins worth it? Why or why not? Please share your thoughts in the comments!