We Moved our WordPress Plugins from Add-ons to Pro Versions

At the beginning of 2019, we had one business model for the plugins here at PublishPress.

At the beginning of 2020, we have a completely different business model.

For a few months now, I've been thinking about writing this post. It will hopefully be helpful to our customers who saw the changes happen. Plus, it will also be useful to developers who are considering the same change.

I was finally prompted to write by Iain Poulson and Jack McConnell who tweeted and recorded a podcast on this topic. Thanks to them for some of the ideas in this post.

What changed with the PublishPress business model?

At the beginning of 2019, we had one free plugin called PublishPress. We also sold several add-ons to that plugin. Each add-on would give you extra features to expand that one plugin.

At the end of 2019, we had six separate plugins. Each plugin has a Free and Pro version.

So during 2019, we dropped the add-on business model and started providing only Free and Pro plugins. Here's our new product line-up:

Each plugin has a Free and Pro version:

  • Every Free version is on WordPress.org.
  • Every Pro version is behind the paywall for PublishPress members.

Why did we make this change?

When we started PublishPress in 2017, we were relatively new to the WordPress plugin ecosystem. We'd used WordPress for years, but didn't have a deep understanding of the plugin business.

So initially we adopted the add-on model because that's what we saw from popular plugins such as WooCommerce, Easy Digital Downloads, and Ninja Forms.

However, we found that customers often struggled to grasp the add-on approach. Here were some of the common problems:

  • There were many add-ons and it was difficult for them to choose which add-on they needed.
  • It wasn't easy for them to understand that they had to get the Free version from WordPress.org and the Pro plugins from PublishPress.com.
  • They would update the main plugin, but not the add-ons. However, the plugins depended on the main plugin and things would start to break.

None of this was really the customers' fault. We just found that the add-on approach just didn't fit with their mental models for premium plugins.

The tipping point was an acquisition we made early in 2019. The business we acquired had a mix of add-ons and the Free/Pro model. So we were forced to choose.

Why did we choose the Free/Pro model?

One key reason we choose the Free/Pro approach is that it's easy to understand because it surrounds us every day:

  • If you download an app on your phone, you either use the free version with ads, or pay to unlock the Pro version.
  • When you go to a newspaper website, you either get a few free articles, or you pay to read everything.
  • You use the public version of Amazon/Spotify/iTunes, or get a membership for extra benefits.

Free/Pro offers a simple A/B choice. People get it instinctively.

So far in this post, I've mainly talked about customers, but there are some advantages for developers too. For example, testing is more difficult with add-ons. It's easier to debug a single plugin than a network of several add-ons.

Making the move easier

The whole process took six months and a lot of development work.

However, we got surprisingly little pushback from the move. I'd say this was for four reasons:

First, I think it's because we did try to over-communicate during the process. We talked about the move constantly in our communication with customers. We wrote a post explaining our roadmap and referred to it constantly.

Second, I suspect the customers were happy because we upped our game in general. The acquisition inspired progress, new features, better support. The business model change was just part of a whirlwind of improvements this year.

Third, we took great care to make sure that customers could click “Update” and automatically move from add-ons to the Pro versions.

Finally, I hope they were happy with the move. We've had no complaints yet about the Free/Pro approach, whereas it was a daily problem with add-ons.

Overall, I'd do it again in a heartbeat. It was a long and difficult slog, but I think it sets us up very well for 2020.

Free/Pro isn't the best choice for everyone

The add-ons model does work well for companies with an enormous number of add-ons. For example, WooCommerce and Easy Digital Downloads users don't need to have every possible payment gateway installed.

It's also possible that the Free/Pro plugin could lead to massive, overweight plugins. Jetpack is an example of going in the wrong direction – a single, bloated plugin with too many features. I can imagine that some developers will want to avoid this and not combine every single feature into the Pro version. It is possible to mitigate some of the bloat by making it possible to disable unwanted features.

Finally, it's worth noting that choosing the right model for your plugins is important, but probably won't be decisive. If you ask customers what they value in a plugin, they'll probably never mention the delivery model. They'll focus on whether or not you can deliver useful products and effective support at a good price.

Over to you

I hope this post was helpful, whether you're a developer or a PublishPress customer.

If you have any thoughts on the best approach for WordPress plugins, please let us know in the comments.

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