by Natasha Postolovski. Writer, maker, traveler.
I believe we’re now seeing the same gold rush for premium plugins as we did with premium themes a few years ago.
Magnus Jepson (co-founder, WooThemes)
Wpbakery recently became the first author on the Envato Marketplaces to reach Power Elite status ($1 million+ in sales) primarily due to sales of a single, wildly popular WordPress plugin: Visual Composer. The plugin has been purchased over 31,000 times since its release in May, 2011, and now powers a comprehensive list of add-on products. This kind of success isn't limited to Visual Composer, and an increasing number of WordPress developers, agencies and shops are running multi-million dollar WordPress plugin businesses.
At Envato, our data and personal experience suggests that WordPress plugins could one day rival themes in popularity, and that more and more WordPress plugins will experience similar breakout success. Currently, the growth in sales of WordPress plugins is outpacing the growth in new authors selling plugins. This year, three new marketplace authors are on track to hit Power Elite status aided by wildly popular WordPress plugins like Slider Revolution, RoyalSlider and UberMenu.
Simply put, themes are no longer the only big game in town.
Magnus Jepson is the co-founder of WooThemes, the makers of the massively successful WooCommerce WordPress plugin. What originally started as a theme business now generates over 80% of its revenue from WordPress plugins. On the Envato Marketplaces, the WooCommerce category has grown 5x in the last year. According to Built With, a stunning 14% of all ecommerce websites use WooCommerce.
Our top selling theme, Canvas, has been overtaken by WooCommerce Subscriptions. Since plugins are usually harder to build than themes, it will take longer for the market to saturate, but I believe that in a few years, themes will just be a simple skin, and all the functionality will be in plugins.
Magnus Jepson, WooThemes
The long-standing success of WordPress themes on the Envato marketplaces shows no sign of stopping, and the rise of plugins doesn't need to impact on theme sales. It may simply mean that the WordPress user base is finally realizing how powerful the platform can be when a beautifully designed theme is used in tandem with a set of well-crafted plugins.
A prime example of this is Visual Composer, a frontend and backend page builder plugin that makes great design with WordPress accessible to non-coders. Paired with a beautiful theme, some stunning results are possible. The plugin is so popular that it is currently the second fastest seller on the Envato Marketplaces, surpassed only by Avada, ThemeForest's top selling WordPress theme.
The mastermind behind Visual Composer, wpbakery, has this to say about why plugins are on the rise:
"Design alone cannot be the only factor of success. It needs to be backed up by strong functionality offered by well-developed and competitive plugins."
The data suggests this is true. When WordPress plugins first launched on CodeCanyon, they sold only 2% of the volume of WordPress themes. Today, they sell 40% of the volume, with almost 1 plugin sold for every 2 WordPress themes.
WordPress has its origins as a blogging platform, but this no longer adequately describes WordPress today. It's now used to power forums, online stores, social networks, large enterprise websites, fundraising campaigns, and dozens of other use cases. A diverse and growing user base with many different needs has helped the market for plugins to proliferate.
Million Dollar Ideas
Many of the most successful WordPress plugins were never intended to be a roaring success. Instead, they were borne out of a developer's need to solve their own problem:
"Like other users, I spent huge amounts of time on content creation for my WordPress themes. I felt like I was spending days coding the same layouts again and again instead of focusing on my business. Also, when my themes were deployed I received tons of support questions related to the management of content.
"It was at that point I understood that I needed to come up with a solution to this issue. There were already a few visual builders available for customer web solutions and I felt that this was something WordPress was really missing, so I decided to give it a try."
In WooThemes' case, the idea for WooCommerce came from the company's existing customer base. Magnus Jepson and his co-founder Mark Forrester listened:
"WooThemes started out designing premium themes, and we quickly built a catalog of themes to cater for many different categories (business, magazine, portfolio etc.). Business/brochure specific themes have always been our most successful, but a common request was for inbuilt ecommerce extending functionality."
Magnus Jepson, WooThemes
The team went through four separate contract developers before settling on James Koster and Mike Jolley, who were already building an ecommerce plugin. The duo joined WooThemes, believing that the company's reach would help the plugin gain the adoption it deserved.
For Mark Jaquith, who heads up the team working on the VelocityPage plugin, it was watching other people struggle to create complicated page layouts that inspired the creation of the plugin:
"I'd seen people struggle with the Visual Editor in WordPress, pasting in complicated code and using shortcode soup. I knew that for creating more complicated page layouts (that is, something beyond a fairly linear blog post), there had to be a better, more visual way of arranging text, image, and video into a grid layout."
Mark Jaquith, VelocityPage
Based on these case studies, it seems like the best route to a successful WordPress plugin is to solve a problem with the current WordPress status quo. If you or your clients find a particular task tedious, time-consuming or unnecessarily difficult, it's likely that there are thousands of people facing the same struggle. With WordPress powering 22% of the web, there's a massive customer base available to any plugin that makes the WordPress experience better, or that empowers people to do more with the platform.
Plugin Business Models
The WordPress community is constantly experimenting with business models around plugins. Visual Composer's business model is straight-forward: you pay a fixed price for the plugin. In the case of WooCommerce, the plugin itself is free, but the company charges for extensions.
Jepson says that the decision to make WooCommerce free was strategic: the team thought that it would lead to increased revenue from theme sales. The company planned to sell extensions on the side, but soon found that they rivaled theme sales in revenue. Extensions are now the core of WooThemes' business. WP Types & Views operates a similar business model. You can use Types for free, but it works best with Views (which is paid). The free plugin drives interest in the premium plugin, just as WooCommerce drives interest in extensions to add custom functionality.
Other companies, like Yoast, offer both a free plugin and a premium version with paid upgrades and support. Cory Miller's iThemes sells Pro plugins using a similar model. Miller recently shared that, much like WooThemes, WordPress themes no longer make up a majority of the company's revenue. One plugin in particular, BackupBuddy, now accounts for 45% of the company's sales.
"Plugins really are our main business now, and it’s a testament to how the commercial space in WordPress has evolved."
Cory Miller, iThemes
Other plugins, like Akismet and Scribe SEO, are free but charge for use of an API key. WordPress shopping cart Cart66 comes in both Lite and Pro versions. Users test out the functionality by using the Lite version, and if it's useful, may eventually outgrow it and upgrade. Other companies, like s2member, have released free plugins and then charged for plugin support and related services.
The Second Big Opportunity?
"A few years ago everybody was focused on premium themes, but with companies like RocketGenius putting out Gravity Forms, we started to see the same potential in the premium plugin marketplace
"As theme providers added support for various plugins in their themes, the plugin marketplace quickly became more fruitful. I believe we’re now seeing the same gold rush for premium plugins as we did with premium themes a few years ago."
Magnus Jepson, WooThemes
One of the tenets of business is diversification; in other words, not having all your eggs in one basket. If you're a talented WordPress developer currently focusing only on themes, it may be worth making inroads into the plugin market so that your business is well-positioned to capitalize on the rise of both product categories.
One of the most promising aspects of the WordPress plugins market is the potential for repeat sales. Buyers often purchase multiple copies of a plugin they love, to use across multiple WordPress installs, or to bundle with services for their clients. wpbakery reports that up to 80% of Visual Composer buyers purchase multiple copies of the plugin.
Here at Envato, we expect that themes will continue to be a winning horse while plugins grow in popularity. The rise of one needn't come at the expense of the other, and there's a large cohort of users who want beautiful themes and powerful functionality to match. Developers releasing top-quality plugins now will be best positioned to capitalize on the coming maturity of the WordPress plugins market.
Magnus Jepson of WooThemes strongly urges other WordPress developers to get on board. "The gold rush is now, get in while you still can," says Jepson.
Interested in making WordPress better with plugins? You'll find a massive range of quality WordPress plugins on CodeCanyon.
If you'd like to get started with WordPress plugin development, check out the WordPress Plugin Development Essentials course or browse the WordPress tutorials category on Tuts+.