I think it’s important for WordPress companies to seek advice from those outside of the WordPress economy. While WordPress users have experience in the subject matter, an outsider’s perspective brings fresh insight. It’s one of the many reasons I participate in my local startup culture in Tallahassee.
With the exception of hosting, it’s often challenging to explain your WordPress product business. This is in part because people might not see WordPress.org as an avenue to sales since it is not a marketplace. WordPress.org, however, is a great user-acquisition and delivery channel for freemium plugins and themes. Free plugin and add-ons or limited API access have worked really well for WooCommerce, Akismet, WordPress SEO by Yoast, and many other successful product companies.
But, what may seem a little off to people is that freemium plugin and theme developers are forced by the restrictions that come with distributing via WordPress.org to know very little about their users. For example, right now, I not only have very little sense of how my plugin is being used, but I don’t have a way of knowing which plugins it’s most often used with or what version of PHP and WordPress it’s being used on.
Many people have developed ways to get consensual insights on how their products are being used or for handling the upselling of their products. After spending over a year managing my own system, which is based on Easy Digital Downloads and their software licensing system for Caldera Forms, I was eager to try out a new drop-in solution for monetizing freemium plugins and monitoring usage of the plugin itself.
My other plugin, Ingot — a WordPress-centered A/B testing solution — recently moved to a freemium model, with a “lite” version. I used this as an opportunity to try out Freemius, a complete monetization, analytics, and insights platform. In this article, I want to share how we did it and why.
My business has been held back by having to split my already limited time between maintaining my site, offering support, handling the regular ecommerce issues — I had no idea an SSL certificate can expire until ours did — and actually building and maintaining the products. On top of that, I’ve been guessing how people use my product instead of actually knowing, which, in hindsight, has led me to making some pretty silly decisions.
Freemius offers two services — Freemius Insights, their usage analytics, and a full-service option, which combines the analytics with management for payments.
Why Freemius Made Sense
A lot of time when I discuss Freemius with other WordPress plugin developers, they tell me “I can build a similar service myself.” This is true, however, I’m just too busy. To be honest, when I started CalderaWP, the ecommerce website I had to build and maintain was an afterthought.
I knew I needed it, but I didn’t think about how much work it would be. “I know how to make a WordPress site,” I thought. I forgot that WordPress ecommerce isn’t my specialty.
I think Easy Digital Downloads is excellent. If I built ecommerce sites, it would be my first choice. If I had the resources to build and maintain a solution that was as complete as Freemius that covered monthly billing, and added checkout directly to the admin, and also gave me usage analytics, I’d base it on Easy Digital Downloads.
For me, building ecommerce solutions in WordPress was an afterthought. Before starting CalderaWP, I worked on maybe two sites that accepted payments directly.
For Ingot, Freemius gave us a drop-in solution to handle payments, licensing, and up sales. It also gives us an awesome dashboard with usage information. Yes, it adds to our transaction costs, but it is well worth it.
Also, we wanted to offer free trials and monthly payment options to Ingot. Again, this is totally doable with Easy Digital Downloads, but it’s another thing that would have taken more work than I had time to implement.
Before Freemius, there was no easy to implement solution for adding payments to the WordPress dashboard, creating monthly and yearly payment plans, and getting users to opt in to usage tracking. I really think that if this had been a viable option for us when we started CalderaWP, our growth, which is good so far, would be a lot farther along. Don’t be shocked to see Freemius come to Caldera Forms in the near future.
Putting Freemius To Work
Freemius is super easy to integrate. In fact, their dashboard gives you code that you can pretty much paste directly into your plugin to get it up and running. It takes a little time to set up plans, add-ons in their dashboard, and then add the code to your plugin to make it work. Count on an hour or two for the whole process and be sure to read all of the explanations in the Freemius dashboard on how it all works.
Many WordPress developers manually manage a free and pro version of their plugins, which is crazy in my opinion. Freemius provides a PHP parser that can remove code marked as being “pro only.” This allows one codebase to have all of the code and have two zip files — one of which meets the WordPress.org guidelines which prevents shipping code that isn’t active without a license.
In Ingot, we actually didn’t use this feature. Instead, we moved most of our code into Composer libraries. This allowed me to have two GitHub repositories with very little code in them, and in the common code via Composer. In addition, our add-ons are based on Composer libraries. That allows me to reuse that code in the add-on plugin, which is just one file, and a Composer.json file that pulls in the add-ons functionality, and also have each add-on included in the full version of the plugin.
If I was just doing two versions of the plugin, without add-ons, I would probably use Freemius’s parser to manage the two versions. But I was already using Composer heavily in Ingot anyway, so it made sense.
What I’d Like To See Improved In Freemius
Freemius is still a new product. They don’t have some of the things I’m used to having. For example, there is no way to offer discount or coupon codes. I have used limited time discount codes to promote CalderaWP at events, online and in email marketing. Freemius founder Vova Feldman ensures me that this is a feature they are working on.
Also, while Easy Digital Downloads and WooCommerce have a full range of integration with third-party services, Freemius does not. They provide integration with HelpScout, but subscribing users to an email list requires implementing a custom solution on my own server that consumes their webhooks. I hope that as the platform matures and gains more widespread use they will offer MailChimp and other types of email marketing and marketing automation tools like abandoned carts.
Ever Want To Know Why Someone Stopped Using Your Plugin?
Traditionally, we have no idea why a user deactivated a plugin. Normally, we don’t even know but when a plugin uses Freemius, using Insights or the full version when a user disables the plugin, they are asked why.
This kind of intelligence can turn what is otherwise a failure into either an opportunity to regain a user, or the ability to learn how to do better in the future. That’s my favorite feature of Freemius.
Concentrate On Your Product
For a small operation like mine, Freemius represented an opportunity to concentrate more on my product and how my users use it and less on managing the mechanics of selling it. Again, I could do all of this myself but I don’t have the resources to build it all out and keep it working.
Freemius is a ready-to-go solution for monetizing a freemium WordPress plugin. It’s a great tool, even in its very early state. It is a tool we need. The WordPress product economy is growing rapidly. We need analytics to drive our product decisions and we need powerful tools to enable us to monetize them appropriately.
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