It's hard to remember the world before WooCommerce premium extensions. If you've not been in the WordPress community for a long time, you might not remember when there were only two kinds of plugins – free and premium. No extensions at all.
If you go back to the old days, there were plugins like Contact Form 7 (which was free) and Gravity Forms (which was premium). The models were pretty simple, from a business perspective. If you needed the features that came with the premium product, you bought it. If you didn't, you used the free product.
WooCommerce changed the game completely.
Before Ninja Forms and their extensions, before Easy Digital Downloads and their extensions, before OceanWP and their premium extensions – before all of that, there was WooCommerce and it's premium extensions.
Many Developers Love Premium Extensions
They love premium extensions because the code is cleaner. The software architecture is designed with a different level of abstraction, so that more extensions can be added later. It's also easier, theoretically, to eliminate a premium extension later, without killing your entire code.
I say theoretically because most developers aren't great about killing features down the line.
In the 16 years that I've used WordPress, I've rarely seen anyone except the old WooThemes kill products that weren't profitable – even as there were still people using it.
It's hard to kill products. It might invite blowback. So developers often keep them around – which incurs all the technical support (and need to upgrade) that they hoped they wouldn't have to do by choosing an architecture for premium extensions instead of a more cohesive premium product (with all the features baked in).
The Success of WooCommerce comes from Premium Extensions
I'm not exaggerating when I say that WooCommerce would never have found success in the market without their approach to premium extensions. I base this claim on two key observations.
Without extensions, WooCommerce wouldn't have been free. Regardless of how awesome I think WooCommerce is, you might never have heard of it if customers were forced to pay for it up front before knowing if it was going to help them (and do what they needed). It was the free price tag that often allowed someone to say, “look, I have WordPress already, let me check out their eCommerce plugin.”
Extensions allowed you to pick and choose what you needed. The premium extension approach allowed users to pick the payment gateway and the email partner they were using – without paying for the code they weren't using. In those early days, you never felt like you were paying for anything other than what you needed. Because the extension approach meant you bought the integrations you needed and left the rest.
Many Customers Hate Premium Extensions
As much as developers may love the model, customers may hate it. Why? Because somewhere along the line, after seeing WooCommerce find so much success, tons of plugins started to copy the approach.
The problem was that they weren't in the same context as WooCommerce. They started breaking out different features and selling them as premium extensions. And the result was completely predictable.
Customers started feeling like they were getting partial products (for free) and then having to pay for every single feature they needed or wanted.
Worse than the feeling of being nickled and dimed to death, the proliferation of extensions meant you didn't know which one you would need to do the thing you needed to do. And finally, to add insult to injury, you might need three or four to get one key feature delivered.
I know I asked a question in the title – should you copy the success of WooCommerce. Before I answer that, let me ask you one more question.
Who is the expert?
If I come to you, your company, to purchase software that will turn my site into something else – whether it's for digital signatures on forms, or a marketplace for sellers, or a recipe site – who is the expert in the space?
You might think the customer who wants to build a recipe site, a marketplace, or collect signatures. But they're likely not technologists. And by selling specialized software, they're presuming you know the world that you're stepping into.
They presume that you are the expert. Not only in the technical space, but in the business domain.
They assume you're the expert.
Until you present them with tons of options and wish them good luck. When you carve every feature out into separate pieces, you're telling them they need to have the expertise to figure out what they need and when they'll need it.
It's easy to step away from the situation and wish them the best of luck. But it's not the move of an expert or trusted advisor.
Should you embrace a similar business model?
Today I saw a tweet about an article on this topic from Freemius and quickly replied:
“Sell add-ons only if a customer is choosing between alternatives they need (like payment gateways or mail integrations). Premium for the rest. Otherwise customers will feel like you charge per feature, and you'll open the door for integrated competitors.”Chris Lema's Strongly Held Opinion
If your WordPress product – a plugin or a theme – requires various integrations to multiple of the same kind of solution (payment, email, CRM, invoices, etc) then you should certainly adopt a premium extension model. People will appreciate selecting one from each list and buying only what they need (and not paying for anything they don't need).
In just about every other case, selling extensions means you're counting on the customer to figure out what they want. And I don't think it will serve you in the long run.
People want a solution. They are hoping you can give it to them. And if you know their business well, and you tell them, you need Bundle A, Bundle B or Bundle C (depending on what you're doing), they'll believe you.
I don't think the technical dynamics of how you build your code matter. What matters is whether you can offer a complete solution for a single price. Without asking your customer to turn themselves into a WordPress technology expert who also knows their business, in order to spend a couple of hundred dollars with you.