A few days ago Pippin Williamson wrote a post about the WordPress plugins business. It’s worth reading, but I’ll paraphrase its main ideas:
- WordPress plugins are getting more powerful and sophisticated
- Plugin-based businesses are growing
- Requirements that used to fall to custom themes are now being solved more granularly with plugins
I agree with these ideas in general. Plugins are certainly getting more powerful and mature. The best examples of this are the plugins-as-platforms that are becoming significantly more popular, like BuddyPress and Pippin’s own Easy Digital Downloads.
At the end of his post, Pippin makes a prediction:
If you are on the edge about entering the world of commercial plugin development, now is the time.
Here’s where I disagree. We got to talking about it on Twitter earlier and I decided that I’d rather take a few extra characters to explain my opinion.
@ I don’t think WP consumers are sophisticated enough yet to support plugins businesses on the scale of theme businesses
First, I’ll start with a premise. The WordPress theme market is a success. It has high end agencies like 10up and Range, consumer-facing marketplaces like ThemeForest, developer ecosystems like Genesis, and great tools like _s. The commercial WordPress theme market is large and growing.
Conversely, the commercial WordPress plugin market is significantly smaller and I think will face a much more difficult path to success.
Themes have a natural source of demand because the easiest thing to understand about a website is the way it looks, which is the primary thing a theme controls. Most technical products have consumers that are much less knowledgable about the products than the creators, and often the creators that win are the ones that market the products in a way that matches the consumers’ understanding of it — even when that understanding is drastically flawed. Themes fit this model perfectly because of the natural tendency to express what you want in your website primarily by its interface.
Plugins tend to be much more abstract. I think understanding a plugin often requires understanding how it works in addition to what it does. The reason is that plugins are a lot less standardized and are naturally suited to do a lot more things, so basic descriptions of what they do are likely to cause more confusion than they solve. In addition to doing a wider variety of things, plugins also tend to do them in a relatively granular way. While you can only have one theme, you can have countless plugins and plugins can interact with (and even require) each other. Again, to make sense of that you need a deeper understanding of the system than just a list of features — you need to be able to make sense of how that interaction works.
In short, plugins are complicated, and complicated things have a smaller market for natural demand, even if they’re ultimately a better solution for customers.
That brings us to customers. WordPress’ greatest strength and source of growth is its usefulness to non-technical people. It can be hard to remember, but in the not-too-distant past it was nearly impossible for a non-technical person to make their own website. While I think it’s still probably not an awesome idea for a lot of people to do it, it’s now incredibly easy and a lot of that is due to the WordPress ecosystem. Despite this being one of WordPress’ greatest strengths, it’s also one of its biggest problems because it creates a market full of people who often don’t really understand what they’re doing. This lack of understanding has actually been a real value to the commercial theme market because its resulted in themes being the hammer to an “every WordPress problem is a nail” syndrome. Themes are often chosen irresponsibly and forced to solve ill-suited problems — see every theme that bundles 15 image sliders and 25 shortcodes. When presented a WordPress requirement, it’s incredibly common for the solution to start with a trip to a “premium theme” website, almost regardless of whether a theme is a logical way to solve the problem.
There are obvious reasons this benefits theme businesses. Similarly, there are obvious reasons this hinders plugin businesses. Here are the assumptions I’m making:
- WordPress theme businesses are, in aggregate, a success
- Theme business success has been significantly driven by customers’ overfitting WordPress demands to theme solutions
- Plugins require sophisticated customers that can think about problems granularly and understand multi-part solutions
- The conditions that drive #2 also hinder #3
As I mentioned to Pippin on Twitter, I’d like to be proven wrong. I think a growing plugin market is important to WordPress. There are some outliers, for sure. Ecommerce plugins, an example Pippin chose, are an early success story, as are some strong brands. This might even be a good thing for customers because it’s harder to build a business with bad plugins than bad themes. And it’s certainly a good thing for those people and companies that have found a way to build successful plugin businesses. As a result, I think they’re a lot more defensible than theme businesses. But it’s bad for the market as a whole.
The plugin market needs more demand and more supply to grow to a scale where it can support more businesses. WordPress’ economic moat is driven significantly by the number of people that earn their income from it. That market creates a lot more people that are incentivized to improve WordPress than would otherwise exist. Right now that moat is mostly composed of the businesses that make themes successful — agencies, marketplaces, etc. WordPress would benefit greatly by expanding the pool to plugins, which is why I hope that I am wrong and Pippin is right.