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The Freemium Plugin Model – Why It Works (and why you shouldn’t bitch about it)

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Since we evolution of the Internet, a new kind of pricing model has emerged, called “Freemium”. It’s not free, and it’s not premium: it’s somewhere in between.

What does that mean!? Well, in short, the core functionality of the product is fully-functioning and completely free, and typically, add-on services can be purchased to extend the functionality of the free product.

An example

Let’s take for example the excellent plugin, Easy Digital Downloads. Since Day 1, Pippin has made the plugin free, and it has resided in the WordPress repository for all to download and use at will.

The plugin allows you to offer digital products (music, ebooks, photos etc.) for sale on your website and to collect payment using PayPal. It has a whole bunch of features to make it a realistic solution for many users, including bundled products, earnings and sales charts, and a promo code system.

So that’s the free part. Then there’s the premium part. Pippin (and others) have written a large number of premium extensions, that provide more functionality than the core plugin.

For example, there are extensions for adding different payment gateways (like Stripe), adding an audio player to preview audio tracks, and mailing list integration.

Why it works

There are many reasons that this whole ecosystem works:

  • The core feature set has to be something that most people will find useful. Including more features than most people will find of use will result in bloat.
  • Keeping the core feature set small makes it possible for the developer to maintain it. Trying to provide support for, and keep developing, a massively complex plugin without any compensation just isn’t realistic.
  • Even plugin developers need to eat. For many people, this is their sole source of income. Freemium lowers the barrier to entry to using the product (try before you buy), and provides an opportunity for the developer to generate an income stream, while still donating their expertise to the community.
  • It allows the developer to build extensions for features that might not be needed by very many people and so wouldn’t normally be worth building, but because they’re being compensated for developing it, it becomes viable.

Attitudes towards freemium

Now that you’ve seen what it’s all about, my hope is that you’ll see that freemium makes these projects possible.

Exceptional products, such as Easy Digital Downloads, would not be possible if it was not for the supplemental income that it provides the developers. Maintaining products like these takes a lot of time and effort, and I’m sure you wouldn’t work for free, so why would you subject developers to that fate?

Unfortunately, I’ve often seen people complaining that this model is a case of the developer providing an underpowered product intentionally, so that the user is forced to buy the extras.

To take Easy Digital Downloads as an example, the code is impeccable, as it is written by a true plugin expert, Pippin Williamson. The main product is very functional and has an excellent feature set that will suit many users.

Just because someone needs one of the features that was not deemed fit for inclusion in the core plugin does not entitle them to bitch about the fact that it’s not there: Be fair and pay the developer what they’re due. After all, the fact that you get as much as you do in the free version is reason enough to thank them, so buying them another meal or two for the premium extension that you need isn’t much to ask.

Your turn

What are your thoughts and experiences on this matter? Any good/bad experiences with freemium as a customer? How about as a developer?

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Dave has been tinkering with WordPress for many years, and he now shares his WordPress knowledge here on Do It WIth WordPress to help others realise its impressive power. He can also be hired to help with your WordPress needs. Dave, who is British, is married to his best friend, Marti, with whom he has a beautiful daughter, Ellie. When he's not dabbling with WordPress, he's probably eating Triscuits or hummus, watching an indie film or British TV show, spending time with friends or family, or exploring the world.

2 Comments

  1. I wonder if there is any research on what works better for WordPress plugins, freemium or premium?

    • I doubt that any “research” has been done, but I’m sure that there are some in the community (maybe Carl Hancock or Pippin Williamson) who could share their experiences.

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