Going to Build Premium WordPress Plugins? Do This First.

Want to make money with premium WordPress plugins?

WordPress powers more than 40% of the web – which is crazy! It's also 18 years old, which means you might think there's no more room left to grow. My math says otherwise. And if you've read that, maybe you're considering getting into the premium WordPress plugin game.

If that's so, I've written this for you.

Here's how most developers do it

Before I get into it, let's look at the most common model. It often looks something like this:

  1. A developer has an idea. Maybe it's a personal itch they want to scratch.
  2. Now that developer builds the first version and puts it out there – for free.
  3. They get feedback and start making it better. They want validation.
  4. The feedback adds more features, which makes it more popular.
  5. Now they want to monetize it. So they start thinking of premium features…

Does this sound familiar? Were you about to step into the same exact path as tons of folks before you?

Only, we haven't finished the process. There's a very predictable step 6 and 7 when dealing with premium WordPress plugins.

That creates a very predictable problem

When you go to build premium WordPress plugins, you're riding a wave of popularity because you've gotten some initial traction. People are loving your product and you're thrilled.

Then, as you start thinking about the premium features, you discover two very clear challenges:

  • Your free plugin does more than enough for most folks (so they don't need or plan to buy your premium features)
  • Your audience just wants more free features. They're not interested in your sustainable business plans and aren't prepared to pay for features.

And this has happened not once. Not twice. But thousands of times. There are people who were building WordPress plugins ten or fifteen years ago that don't do it anymore.

Know why?

Because these problems rose up and killed the joy they were having when they started their adventure.

The problem is that all of this is really predictable. If you step back and think about it.

If you just start building, collecting feedback, and iterating – it shouldn't surprise you that some people will keep asking until they get enough of what they need, and then walk away.

If you start by giving everything away for free, it shouldn't surprise you that a majority of your “customers” aren't the folks that have developed the muscle to go for their wallets.

To be clear, I'm not saying that you should never create free plugins with great features. I think you should.

I just think you should do a few other things before you get started.

Do this before starting on your premium WordPress plugin

Before you build anything – the free plugin or the premium solution – I want to suggest a little bit of work.

Step One. Fill in the blank: People will use this to _____________.

Now, don't write a deeply technical answer. Start with the more generic business response. So instead of writing, “pop up a presentation of who has recently made a purchase on my site,” write, “provide social proof.”

This business articulation will help with your next step.

Step Two. Fill in the next blank.

Three kinds of people might want to use this:

1._____________________
2._____________________
3._____________________

Now, as you think about and fill out those three spots, you'll soon discover that the three kinds of folks will likely approach your product differently. This is just the normal way things work.

Step Three. Define how the product will differ for each of these audiences.

If I sell a social proof product, one person might be a software developer and all they need is a Gutenberg Block and a bunch of hooks.

A different person might be less technical, but still in the web builder community, and may not only need the block but multiple patterns, pre-made styles, and pre-made integrations for key purchasing platforms.

A third person might be a merchant themselves. They may need a wizard, a way for it to automatically integrate, and a style picker.

You see where this is going, right?

What we've done is define a set of features for each target segment. This allows you, before you start, to be clear on what you might want to give away for free, and what you might charge for.

No, I'm not saying you're charging for features. That's what it might have sounded like. Let me be more clear.

You're charging different audiences.

You're giving away the free stuff to a developer who was likely less interested in paying for all the rest of the stuff because they believe they could do it themselves, and likely in a tiny amount of time (which is never true).

This let's people try it out. Developers and anyone else who wants to.

But it also allows developers to recommend your premium WordPress plugins to their customers because it takes work off their plate, and they know that the Pro editions do more for those other kinds of audiences.

Most importantly, no one ever feels like they got a bait and switch move. Each segment got exactly what they needed for the price you're charging and the trade-off was worth it.

A little early planning helps a lot

If you skipped the whole article to get down to this part where I summarize the main point, it's really this simple.

A little advance planning, before you build premium WordPress plugins, can go a long way in creating a vibrant business that is sustainable without creating a lot of negative backlash.

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Chris Lema
Chris Lema has been working with WordPress since 2005. Over the years he's been a blogger, a speaker at WordCamps, a coach for WordPress product companies, and the founder of the conference for WordPress business owners, called CaboPress. Today he's the VP of Products at Liquid Web, where he manages the world's first managed platform for WooCommerce stores.