Should Developers Support Free Products & Services?

in Blog

One decision that many theme and plugin developers ask themselves before launching a product is: should I release this product for free or should I charge for it?

Whether a plugin or theme is released for free or for a premium has more to do with the business model the developer wants to adopt rather than the quality or number of features of a product. Plugins such as W3 Total Cache and WordPress SEO by Yoast are packed full of features yet were released for free. On the other hand, there are some relatively simple plugins on CodeCanyon that will cost you anything between $5 and $25.

There are pros and cons to both business models. With WordPress themes, I believe selling designs at a premium and occasionally releasing free designs to generate traffic is the best way to go. I’ve seen many theme developers go down the freemium route and release limited versions of their designs for free and other good designers release all of their themes for free, though the most successful designers charge for their designs.

The WordPress plugin market is different. Whilst the premium WordPress plugin market is growing every year, I’d argue that most of the best plugin developers are still releasing their products for free. Perhaps this is because most WordPress users prefer to use free plugins or perhaps it’s due to the high level of traffic that a successful free plugin can generate.

The two plugins that I mentioned before, W3 Total Cache and WordPress SEO by Yoast, have both had over 1 million downloads. Joost de Valk (Yoast) has been very successful at making a living by releasing quality WordPress plugins for free and pushing targeted traffic to his website. He currently makes around $1,500 a month from one small ad on his blog sidebar but most of his income comes from his consulting services (which are heavily advertised on his website).

Should You Provide Support For Your Free Products & Services?

A quick look at the most popular WordPress plugins highlights the fact that most plugin developers don’t actively support their plugins. For example, the support page for Contact Form 7 suggests readers read their FAQ page and then post a question in the WordPress support forums if they need further help.

Who can blame them. Helping others can be rewarding but it can also be very time consuming. At the moment I only spend around 30 minutes helping members in the WordPress forums. I enjoy chatting with other WordPress users and like helping them out though when the forum becomes more popular I wouldn’t be able to provide everyone directly. This shouldn’t be a major problem though as when a forum grows, other forum members tend to help out too.

Plugin developers are sometimes the only one responsible for helping users and this can understandably be overwhelming. Two years ago Zain from FAQ-Tastic stop selling the pro version of his plugin due to the work he had supporting his plugin (free and paid). Below is a quote from his long goodbye email he sent to users.

However, the reality is that it takes a lot more to keep a site and project alive. I have monthly running costs to support like the shopping cart and the auto-responder list that you’re reading this email on. There’s also my Developer – John (absolutely brilliant WordPress plugin Developer) – who needs to be paid every time WordPress does an update. There’s also time spent dealing with customer issues – it’s actually a lot of work behind the scenes which no-one ever sees…

In terms of cost, it’s essentially, my time that’s the biggest factor. FAQ-Tastic Pro actually only makes enough to cover the cost of the cart and responders. After that, I’m lucky if I make $5 a month on the Pro product.

It’s not uncommon for developers to put in hundreds of hours into their products only to see little to no return. Supporting a plugin that is popular will drain all of your time and if you aren’t getting enough sales, small monthly costs such as hosting and newsletter providers can take most of the small amount of income you are making.

Zain also noted that:

“Free” Won’t Make You Money
…but it sure as hell will suck up your time. If you’re a Developer and you just build things because it pushes your limits, tests your skills and get emails from people who think it’s cool – then great. Just remember that there will be a time when the interest in what you’re doing will fade – especially if there’s no incentive to carry on.
You’ll only ever receive a few “Thank you” emails – the rest will be “Oi mate, this doesn’t f**kin’ work – fix it, will ya?!?!”. You will spend more time in “tech support” than actually building something new and cool (where you get the buzz from!).

…And when you get to that point, you’ll have a whole heap of users that are dependent on your WordPress plugin and will be upset as you’re no longer interested.

Don’t get me wrong – a lot of people love “free” and are more than willing to suck up your time, especially if they don’t have to do anything in return. It’s a dog-eat-dog world we live in, and, unfortunately, it’s all driven by greed rather than mutual benefit. There *are* a few good people out there in the world – very few and I’m really grateful for them.

It’s unfortunate that there are people who are downright rude to people who release free products. At the very least they should be polite when asking for help. On my last blog I released around 4 free WordPress themes and they proved very popular. Many users who asked for support were polite and grateful though I encountered a lot of rude people who expected me to drop everything and help them change their whole website design. I won’t lie to you – that can be disheartening and frustrating.

How Can Developers Help Users?

Direct email support may be the most favoured way of getting help by WordPress users but in the grand scale of things it is probably not the best solution for everyone involved. I do have nothing but respect for developers that do provide free support to all their users though if a developer is spending most of their time helping users, they will have little to no time to spend upgrading and improving the plugin itself.

Contact Form 7 is a great example of how developers can provide great support without being overwhelmed. They have a great documentation section with tutorials, tips and resources and an FAQ section with answers to over 20 common questions. The Contact Form 7 support room on WordPress allows users of the plugin to help each other out too.

Developers who want to help users directly but are concerned about the time involved in doing so could charge for support. Many developers go down this route and charge for support for a month, 3 months, 6 months or a year. I suspect that many developers find it difficult to price their support packages correctly. Anyone who purchases a support package will undoubtedly have a problem they need resolved. The question is: how difficult is it to fix that problem?

Let’s consider a developer who charges $25 for a month of support and assume that most customers only have 1 or 2 problems that need addressed. If the customer has a small problem that can be fixed in 10 minutes then $25 is a good return for the developer. However, $25 isn’t a great return if the developer has to spend a few hours helping a customer implement their product. The more successful a product is, the less this is an issue, as support can be scaled better and a regular income from support packages would allow the developer to hire others to take care of support. It’s the small time developers that will suffer more when their support packages aren’t priced correctly and/or they are encountered with time consuming problems by customers.

Have Your Say

WordPress was built on the concept of open source. Even though premium designs are dominated the WordPress theme market, the majority of WordPress plugins are still being released for free. What do you think is the best way for developers to support free products? Is an open support forum sufficient or do you like having the option of paying for premium support?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this issue. Particularly from those of you who have released themes and plugins or are planning to do so in the future.

Thanks for reading.


Comments (2)

  • Comment by Kevin Muldoon
    Kevin Muldoon

    You’re right – the vast majority of developers don’t provide support. Support forums are usually filled with plugin users trying to help each other though it can be a case of the blind leading the blind if there’s no documentation.

  • Comment by Donna Caissie
    Donna Caissie

    I think that if developers provided users with documentation, it would go a long way to solving the problem.  After installation, I’ve deleted many a plugin or theme because I can’t figure out how to use it.  The user interface isn’t intuitive to anyone but the developer, and when using a support forum, it can take days or even weeks before you get a reply — if you get one at all. Very frustrating, but apparently, there’s enough frustration to go around.