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Getting to ‘Yes’ on Plugin “License Hell”

Is there a win-win solution for plugin owners fighting churn and their professional WordPress customers, like agencies and freelancers?

I appreciate Rob Howard's response to the insightful discussion that emerged on Twitter over MemberPress's new subscription renewal interface in the WordPress dashboard. I learned a lot, and I was reminded this controversy goes back a long way. In 2015 we wrote about unhappy customer reactions when JetBrains adopted an Adobe CS payment model for PHPstorm. Beyond the WordPress bubble, this sort of thing is old news.

Even if they hand off this responsibility to the site owner or cover it with ongoing maintenance and support services, managing license keys will still be hell for someone.

Maybe there's a win here for everyone

There are separate questions about design and business ethics. Is completely locking out users when there's not a valid support key out of step with a community ethic, i.e. “The WordPress Way?” That's a big and important topic, but there's some low-hanging fruit in the far less contentious problems Rob helpfully focused on. Maybe there is a potential win-win solution. His ideas might satisfy the two most legitimately frustrated (but seemingly opposed) perspectives in this controversy:

  1. Plugin owners fighting subscriber churn so they can sustain their businesses.
  2. Their customers and colleagues in the WordPress ecosystem, especially WordPress agencies and freelancers. They're also trying to run their businesses and don't want the extra work and potential embarrassments license management can create.

As Rob points out, aggressive upsells and lockouts are aimed at the mass market of common WordPress users. They're for people who don't understand what they've installed or why they might pay for it. The target is not highly WordPress-literate people — especially those who are building sites professionally.

Unfortunately, we all get the same annoyances in our WordPress dashboards anyhow.

Small agencies and site builders are your friends

Site builders, small web dev teams, and WordPress agencies don't want their clients confused or hassled with upsells. Worse, they don't want a license to expire and break functionality on a client's site. Even if they hand off this responsibility to the site owner or cover it with ongoing maintenance and support services — something Syed Balkhi recommended in 2015 — managing license keys will still be hell for someone.

I haven't thought about Crate in a long time, but it has been around for quite some time. It's a way to get out of “license hell” — and deal with other challenges that won't apply and can't be afforded by a lot of small to mid-sized WordPress businesses. Rob's WP Wallet is aimed at that broader market. It sounds like a worthwhile project, along with WP Notify and Clarity. For those who work with WordPress on a daily basis, getting control of notifications and aggressive advertising in the WordPress back-end is universally wanted.

It would be fantastic if more plugin shops catered to the needs and concerns of agencies and freelancers who don't want their clients to ever see an upgrade notice or an upsell pretending to be one.

Is license hell necessary?

It's not hard to see that people who want to pay for plugins (and essentially resell them to their customers) are the people you want to keep happy and maintain a good relationship with, as a plugin owner. It would be fantastic if more plugin shops catered to the needs and concerns of agencies and freelancers who don't want their clients to ever see an upgrade notice or an upsell pretending to be one. (Or to be locked out of anything.)

Educating newcomers to WordPress and shaping their expectations about your product is good for everyone.

Whiny free-riders are people (and potential customers) too

I'd also like to stick up for the frustrations of people who just don't understand what a support license subscription is and why they should happily pay for continuous upgrades. Yes, they often look like and act like free riders. We can't expect different if we don't market and communicate effectively to them.

Educating newcomers to WordPress and shaping their expectations about your product is good for everyone. If customers or potential customers are upset because they're being pressed to repeatedly pay for something they don't understand (it’s not a buy-once, own-forever product!) that's on the seller. Rob has some good ideas for how to better communicate the proper expectations to customers. Giving options to people who want to pay one time or less frequently than an annual cycle is one solution that ought to appeal to professional WordPressers too.

Product or service? What am I paying for? What do I own?

A decade ago (and even before that) I used to keep local copies of WordPress plugins (and add-ons for other CMSes) even though I knew it was pointless because they'd be obsolete quickly. I was treating plugins like my music collection in the early days of iTunes. I knew it was crazy, but the drive to “own” something is strong. Many of us are now paying to access music we previously owned on CDs, tapes, etc.

This is still a new and evolving digital media culture. There are good reasons many people resist the SaaSification of everything. It's a model that makes sense for a lot of commercial plugins: mimic Netflix's marketing and sell a plugin as a service . But I agree with Eric Karkovack that more needs to be done to help potential customers understand the value of continuously paying for software updates. Why can't that involve a good user experience too?

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