The power of WordPress.org on freemium products

wp-orgThere’s a ton of discussion going on around the WordPress.org theme review incentive program right now. The incentive program was structured around a concept of rewarding reviewers for their work by allowing them to choose which themes get featured on the WordPress theme showcase, based on how many themes they review and approve in a given month.

As you may expect, the program has had some issues, mostly because it essentially encourages pay-for-play. Review themes? You can feature your own. With the size of the WordPress.org audience (not to mention the in-dashboard audience), that’s a huge incentive.

With the popularity of the freemium model and the power of the WordPress.org theme directory’s traffic, the program appears to have been gamed, to the point that the program has been temporarily suspended.

The discussion around Jen Mylo’s post announcing the suspension and future of the program is mostly positive and very educational, if you have a while to check it out. It’s fascinating to read the various motivations and concerns of different folks.

However, to me, the impact of WordPress.org on freemium business models is more interesting than this particular debate.

WordPress.org is a hugely popular website

Unfortunately, stats for WordPress.org are very difficult to come by. The team that manages WordPress.org does use Google Analytics, but to my knowledge there isn’t any sort of advanced metric for tracking stats on the WordPress site. Also, WordPress.org is big enough that the Google Analytics data (which is limited for free accounts) is practically worthless beyond generic trends.

Alexa ranks WordPress.org 70th globally, but that’s probably innacurate. In other words, WordPress.org is really big, but I’m not sure how big. When contacting individuals that manage WordPress.org, I was unable to get back any form of reliable or relevant statistics for the theme and plugin landing pages.

But you can be certain, themes and plugins that get featured on WordPress.org are rewarded with increases in downloads. The math is simple. There are nearly 2,500 themes on the repository, and nine that are featured. Where would you start looking for a new theme?

Interestingly, I don’t know who chooses what plugins are featured on that landing page, but the list has pretty much looked the same to me for a couple of years.

And as commercial themes and plugins are now a very big deal, as many WordPress centric businesses generate multiple millions of dollars per year, the impact of these featured plugins and themes pages can have real monetary impact on business.

The impact of .org on freemium products

It’s probably accurate to say that a primary benefit of a freemium WordPress product is the exposure on WordPress.org. So when someone can do something to make their product more visible in that arena, they will.

In the theme review instance, the way to get featured was to review themes. So people did. But it could also be branded product banners, or spammy footer links, or who knows what other things repository managers have had to push back against over the years.

I tend to like that WordPress.org is benevolent toward freemium providers, but at the same time, managing these pages is a big responsibility. Small changes on WordPress’ website turn into big changes in people’s lives. Yes, that’s their choice to stake their business on another party, but it doesn’t limit the impact.

And WordPress.org is not managed by some giant, super well funded team. WordPress is an open source project and is managed by volunteers or people that are paid by folks like Matt Mullenweg who have a heavy interest or stake in the long term success of the project.

In light of these things, I encourage people that have built businesses on freemium models and rely on WordPress for exposure, keep in mind that WordPress people work very hard to make the website and distribution platform fair and high quality. But things may change over time and impact your business. It’s part of the deal. Given this, I’d also encourage you to be creative about a variety of ways to market your freemium products, and (as much as possible) be thankful for the exposure WordPress.org offers, not dependent on it.

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  1. I wonder how effective the freemium approach is for plugins and themes and whether a significant portion of people upgrade to offset the additional support burden. I haven’t seen a lot of numbers on this from developers, a la “we released a free version and sales went up by x%”. It’s part of my roadmap but my expectations are somewhat conservative.

    I hadn’t really stopped to think about how influential a featured placement is the themes directory. The “responsive” theme did make a good deal out of it, I wonder how much of that was a result of being featured so much.

  2. I’ll share some data from MailPoet, a freemium newsletter plugin that I co-author.

    Bottom-line: freemium models for plugins work mostly because of wordpress.org.

    According to a survey we ran, this is how our users discover us:

    – WordPress : 55%
    – Recommendations (reviews, word of mouth, etc.): 23%
    – Google: 22%

    The repository is critical to us, as you can tell. Without it, we’re dead.

    But remember, our plugin needs to be mostly free to be in the plugin repository. If you try to upsell too much, you’ll be rightfully banned. Trialware, beware. It’s hard commercially to find the right balance, believe us.

    We’ve recently joined the top 10 most popular plugins: http://wordpress.org/plugins/browse/popular/

    Entering the “top 10 most popular” is increasing our downloads by 10 to 20%. We’re guessing because we still can’t tell the difference between “new downloads” and “simple updates”.

    Position on the search results of the plugin repository is critical. Being in top results spots for “newsletter”, for example, was followed by an important increase in downloads in our case. Critical stuff.

    Retention is just as important. Lots of people download plugins just to try them, and never use it again.

    We have a small sample of user data (they opted in after installing us) on retention, which is pretty accurate:

    – 30% will be using MailPoet a month after
    – 18% are using it 3 months after
    – 10%, 6 months after
    – 5% a year after, or 1 out of the 20 originals

    Retention of a Premium plugin will be drastically higher, as you can imagine.

    Here are a few improvements we’d like to see to the repository:

    1. Better search results (both in position, and display). There are old plugins that remain popular because they are historically highly ranked. Think of Contact Form 7.

    2. New homepage for the repository of plugins, with an editorial selection of good (and new) plugins. Best practices, etc. Yes, this takes volunteers and staff. 🙂

    3. A list of most popular new plugins, is an easy addition.

    A final note. The repository is well managed and ruled, considering their scarce human resources. We’re grateful to have that team in place, with the right guidelines, making the right decisions. Thank you!

    1. Thanks from me as well. Really a very interesting read that would be worth a blog post of its own instead of being “hidden” here in the comments. Maybe you should consider that for your mailpoet blog, I am sure it would generate some interest.

      What would be interesting to know too is how well do those referrals from the WP plugin directory actually convert, e.g. are your premium members also made up of ~ 55% people coming from WP.org or is it more or less. My guess would be less since I have a feeling many people are looking for completely free things on WP.org only.

      1. Do we convert to Premium the users who find us on the repository, more than Google, for example?

        We don’t know.

        In reality, I’m more interested in getting answer to these questions, for example:

        1. The users who spend more than $250 annually (7% of our users) on Premium solutions, why aren’t they converting?

        What feature is missing? What current feature can be improved?

        Similarly, who are the users with money that aren’t using us at all?

        2. The users who churn, why did they drop us? What made themselves say, “Forget it! I’m going back to MailChimp”.

        That’s very difficult to find out, although we do get the answers at WordCamps by speaking to people.

        3. What would it take for us to become a staple plugin? Like Gravity Forms has become for forms.

        We think we know how. We’re working focusing this year to reach that objective next year.

        If you’re interested to find out more, and have time to listen, I’ve given a presentation of the plugin freemium model at WordSesh:


        I forgot to show the slides on the video, so here they are:


        I’ve given a similar presentation at WordCamp Europe (poorly filmed, you don’t see the slides):


  3. @kim, whoa that was super informative, thank so much for sharing that here! Definitely food for thought. Awesome.

    You guys have a really impressive product going too. Has the name change from Wysija to MailPoet contributed to growth as well? Rebranding efforts are also very interesting to read about.

    I agree on your suggestions for improving the repository section on .org. It’s sometimes really hard to distinguish the better & current plugin easily even with the ratings system improvements. I do like that there are sites that are trying to highlight a more curated selection of plugins to weed out the noise. Maybe these places should also get some link love from the repository somehow.

    1. Thx Peter! I’m happy to share some insights.

      It’s hard to measure the positive impact on our name change. One thing is sure, nobody complains about the new name, except our die hard early adopters.

  4. haha…nice one @Sami
    Personally i always thought the ‘featured’ theme were based on ‘popularity’ or how many downloads in week or how well the theme rated/count etc.

    take ‘twenty fourteen’ and ‘twenty thirteen’ for example, they got the featured spot lock on always 🙂 i thought it is because both theme get downloaded more than other themes.

    just found out it is a ‘reviewer’ choice in hand. no wonder i saw a new theme with not more than 3000 downloads get ‘featured’ so quickly sometime. it is in fact, if one of the reviewers like the theme then it will get featured nevertheless.

    you could imagine the download count if your theme get featured, maybe jump from 100 downloads perday to 1000+ or more. For Freemium (had paid pro version) business point of view, it is a very tempting and will boost the conversion.

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