No One Wants Plugins, They Want Solutions

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This may sound odd coming from someone who sells plugins, but the truth of the matter is most WordPress users, and more importantly potential users, don’t want a plugin, or a theme — they want a complete website solution.

This can be hard to grasp for those of us who spend all of our time making websites. We spend tons of time searching for the coolest plugins, themes, development tools and ways to speed up our sites. We spend our days consumed by the awesome that is WordPress — but we are not a good representation of the market for WordPress plugins and themes.

But for the user who just wants to make a single website, things are different. They are not looking for cool tools. They are looking to sell a product and/ or promote their message. There are also tons of small business and solo freelancers using WordPress to make sites, with little to no development skills serving those in need of a site.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with either of these types of users, whether they have coding skills or not. Too often, those who do have those skills look down on these types of WordPress users. That’s wrong. WordPress is a platform that is just as much for the advanced developer as it is for the novice developer, or the non-developer implementor.

Recently in WP Tavern, Sarah Gooding wrote a good article on the financial success of theme authors on Envato’s ThemeForest, as well as the pitfalls for consumers. This paragraph of the article, which you really should read, sums it up really well:

Envato theme authors are making large sums of cash by selling themes that are packaged as complete solutions for online businesses, because that’s what consumers have been trained to expect – the bigger the package, the more appealing the product. This can cause serious problems with data portability for customers down the road and remains a continual source of frustration for consultants who are hired to support poorly built Envato products.

Sarah does a good job of making it plain why it is this way by showing the enormous sums a lot of authors are making by following this strategy. Envato of course quotes their numbers in terms of what they mean to individuals, not the company, as that makes for compelling marketing material. But when you read the numbers, start adding it up for Envato, and your eyes will quickly roll back in your head and be replaced with dollar signs.

There is nothing wrong with Envato making tons of money. For awhile, I took a very small piece of that in return for writing free WordPress tutorials on the code section of Tuts+. The Tuts+ network of tutorial sites is an awesome source of information, which I have learned a ton from. Envato returns a lot of money to people in our community, and that’s great.

The amount of money Evanto makes is not the point of this article though. The point is, as Sarah point out, Envato are selling complete solutions for an online business–and that’s what people want.

Control Is Priceless

Self-hosted WordPress is uniquely situated to offer what no software as a service product could ever offer–not just a complete solution for an online business–but complete control over it. That control, along with infinite extensibility, which is provided by self-hosting a WordPress site, is something that, Wix or Squarespace could never deliver.

That control is incredibly important not just for technical reasons, but also for psychological reasons.

The ability to control your own data, your own branding, and do it on your terms is just as important of a freedom as the freedom to alter and share your source code. For those who don’t know how to alter their source code, it’s obvious which one is more important. All of these freedoms can lead to better sites or bigger nightmares.

We as WordPress developers, are amazingly well positioned to leverage these possibilities to offer complete solutions for online businesses, which is what a huge number of people are affirming they need when they vote with their dollars on ThemeForest.

I’m by no means saying we should sell bloated themes, full of features that should be in plugins and create user lock-in. What we should be selling is integrated, modular solutions–because no one wants plugins or themes, they want solutions–and they are willing to pay for it.

So why do we keep selling plugins or themes to do X? And why are our plugins and themes so filled with redundant code?

Beyond that, as I said in a recent article for Torque, we can’t actually offer complete solutions for each niche at $50 or $100 a pop. We need to not only be honest, but to be easily extendable. Being honest means admitting that your plugin or theme may only be 80% of what someone needs and helping users get through their own unique last 20%.

It also means being honest about why sometimes, you really do need to spend 5 or even 50 thousand at an agency to do something the right way. Of course, that’s not practical.

The reality is that plugin developers are often in the business of making the $500 site possible, something they’d never do as a freelance site developer. That’s why honesty and intuitive customization is important.

Being easily extendable doesn’t just mean lots of hooks as most users don’t know what a hook is, how to use them or wants to learn those skills just to finish one site for their company.

That’s why I don’t think that custom post types and fields belong in most plugins. Choose a free plugin, make a it a required install with the TGM Plugin Activation class, and now you’ve given your users easy customization and data portability.

The future of WordPress, if we are going to reach 50% market share as Matt Mullenweg wants, is as much about high-end custom designed sites on WordPress VIP, as it is about better serving the tiny budget, do it yourself sites, created by novices.

Luckily we, those who sell products to both novices and professionals, looking for a way to solve a problem without writing the whole thing from scratch, are in a perfect solution to offer the solutions people need.

But the need to be honest, and to provide better solutions, means that we need to stop thinking in terms of themes or plugins and start thinking in terms of systems.

What does a WordPress system look like? Product families like Easy Digital Downloads (EDD) and its ecosystem of add-ons and themes is a good example, but is it enough? A plugin like EDD and a few add-ons give you everything you need to sell downloadable products, but it’s not a complete solution.

A complete solution is all of that, plus a theme, plus a design for that theme, plus SEO, plus email list option, plus social sharing, plus a support system, plus marketing automation, plus a documentation and tutorials, a tool to add custom fields to the eCommerce plugin’s post types, plus multiple ways to search content, docs and support.

I could go on, especially since I haven’t touched local development, hosting and deployment, but I think you get the point about what I mean by a complete system. Putting all of that into a theme would be a bloat-monster and wouldn’t actually solve the problem. Sure you could generalize it all into a software as a service solution. In that case, you just invented Shopify–and removed too much of the customization and control people need.

The funny thing, is hundreds if not thousands of times a day people go through a lot of work, to put together that system. I suspect the actual results set that they find is actually kind of narrow. If it’s not, it’s because people are missing what they need, often until its too late.

The kind of system I am talking about involves parts from multiple vendors, with many options but not too many. But it solves the root problem–people want a complete solution for an online business, and it let’s them run it on their own server, keeping it all under their control.

The Downsides

One “downside” is that system is going to point how expensive it actually gets. But this gets back to my point about honesty being important to long-term business that I made in my Torque article.

We’re avoiding potential sticker shock by selling each piece separately. The first few times someone is asked to spend $50 or $100 to get their business off of the ground it makes total sense. But the more that happens, especially unexpectedly, the less likely they are to push the “Buy Now” button.

Giving people an honest price for everything what they need, and saving them time finding out what that is might hurt somewhat in the short term, but in the long-term it’s better for us all.

Of course the system I described above was only a solution for one of many needs–selling downloadable content. It is the system I’m working on right now, so it’s on my mind, but there are a lot of these common systems–from eCommerce to lead generation, to brochure-aware to events, etc. Of course everyone of those systems, including those implied by the “etc”, needs to be multiplied by the applicable number of niches.

It’s tempting for a company to try and be the “one stop shop,” or complete solution. But that means creating redundant and components, defeating the whole purpose of being in an open-source ecosystem.

As I said, Easy Digital Downloads has a lot of what you need for a system that sells downloadable content, and most of what they are missing would make no sense for them to sell–and that’s OK. An SEO plugin for EDD or a local development and deployment system for EDD–that’s nonsense. The solutions for that exist and apply to a lot broader range of applications and that’s OK. But connecting people to the right set of WordPress SEO by Yoast add-ons for their kind of business, instead of letting them find it on their own.

This type of transformation in how we market and sell products, as system, requires for the insiders that make these tools, to remember that a lot of what seems obvious to us, like of course you use WordPress SEO, or all the places you need newsletter optin, and what tools to use to build them, that’s not obvious to everyone.

There is a big difference between someone who spends their days making WordPress sites or tools and someone who needs one site. Hopefully the latter type become a part of the community–go to a Meetup, go to a WordCamp or contribute to the community in some way.


We talk so much in this community about competitors working together, and supporting each other. Maybe it is time that we start reflecting like that in the way we sell our products and services.

The best of the best in WordPress for enterprise already to do it that way. When Automattic created WordPress VIP to provide enterprise-grade hosting to clients who could afford it, they knew that wasn’t enough. They knew they needed enterprise-grade developers that could create sites that met their rigorous guidelines.

Instead of building out a huge stable of developers for WordPress VIP, so they could keep all of the development in house, they started the WordPress VIP partners program. Sure, they a potential source of income, but they also skipped a huge investment in recruiting and salaries. More importantly, instead of having one VIP development team, they have a growing roster of them. Each one has specific specialties to offer, allowing for a better match for each VIP client.

It’s a brilliant example of how collaboration works to create a better end-result. It helps put into context a quote from Matt Medeiros’ recent interview with Matt Mullenweg on the Matt Report:

I’ve always been a fan of businesses that grow with ubiquity, that become more powerful the more ubiquitous they are, more valuable. WordPress itself is one of these. Akismet is one of these. Jetpack is certainly one of those.

Automattic has always done a great job of strategically giving up control, and making the tools that they use to power their business freely available. It’s made their tools better and their company stronger.

Where To Go From Here?

Honestly I’m not sure. You can look to CalderaWP-created add-ons for other popular plugins, including Easy Digital Downloads & FacetWP soon. As I have said before, we are focused on using Caldera Forms to make our plugins more easily customizable, like we did with the Mark Viewed plugin. Beyond that we are looking to create bundles of plugins that tie together nicely, but don’t require each other.

Is that enough?

Nope. But it’s a start.

If you don’t like the one-bloated them as the complete solution for X model, than we need to offer a better way of delivering complete website solution. CalderaWP alone can’t do it. So let’s talk, send me an email, or tweet at me, or pull me aside at the next WordCamp we cross paths at.

3 thoughts on “No One Wants Plugins, They Want Solutions”

  1. I think it would be wise to take the argument / debate to the next logical level and admin: “No one wants WordPress…They just want solutions.” Why does WP so often see itself as The (sledge) hammer and everything is a nail. Everything.

    I mean, one could argue (if one was so inclined) that WP is becoming the IE of CMSs. For example, WP often seems to have an aversion to broader standards and best practices. (Did someone – again say “bloated code base”?)

    Mind you, when you see yourself as the center of your own universe, that is bound to happen. And in fact, such existence isn’t necessarily bad. The disconnect is just that, the disconnect (i.e., lack of self-awareness). And that’s where the ice gets really thin really fast, eh?

    Thanks for listening. I’ll take my answer off the air 🙂

    1. Mark –

      Yes, WordPress has to be all thing to most people at this point because of its ubiquity, which means it can get large. The backwards-compatibility is great for stability, but it means we are stuck with some very antiquated architecture in places. That said, I think it’s still a great foundation for a lot of things. But not everything.

      I think it’s an amazing database layer for most things and that’s why I choose it for anything I can’t do with an index.html and some JavaScript. I’ve been meaning to do more with Node, and learn how to work with MongoDB, but honestly I keep missing all of the things that are done for me, and done well by WordPress. Maybe the Aurelia (some sort of off-shoot of Angular) presentation I’m going to tonight at the local JavaScript Meetup will change my mind.

      Take care,

      Maybe the

      1. I think my arc is this: WP is a tool. It’s a mean. It’s not an ends.

        Yet it’s so often – too often – spoke of as a OSFA ends that too often too many people forget to scope and understand the actual the problem. Can WP cover it? Yeah, probably. But it can only help solve what you truly understand. Just slappin’ some WP on it, is not an effective strategy that makes clients happy.

        Josh – To be clear, my thinking out loud does not apply to you. I’m speaking of the broad community, as well as the numerous bad habits that get a free pass because “don’t do that” is twisted into being a bully, etc.

        It’s like that old Chris Rock skit. He’s doing a bit on his father (or was it grandfather) and Robitussin; and how ‘Tussin was the answer to everything.

        “Just put some WordPress on it…” 🙂

        Nuff said.

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