How to Grow a Plugin to 100,000 Users in a Year

Continuous changes in the WordPress repository have made it harder to increase the number of active installations for many plugins, especially those who are just starting out. However, with a quality plugin, high numbers are still possible.

For the past elevenish months, since September 2016, we’ve been maintaining, developing and growing the Under Construction WordPress plugin to get it up to 100,000 active installations. That number is not an epic achievement – there are quite a few plugins with +100k installations. However, the growth rate of more than ten thousand new active installations per month is something to take a closer look at.

Although this was anything but a “5-minute job”, I can’t say we worked hard. We worked smart! Some of the methods we used are shared in this article. Hopefully, by looking at what we did you’ll be able to grow your plugins too. Things we didn’t share were omitted not because we’re hiding something but because this isn’t an in-depth guide. There are plenty of those laying around and they all boil down to the same principles. So no need for us to repeat them too.

Why this plugin?

It was abandoned, we thought it had potential, so we adopted it. If you’re hoping there was some higher purpose, in-depth keyword research, market research or anything similar – sorry there wasn’t. “But that’s no way to run a business!” – Some may say. Doing business is a risk. A “calculated” one, but never the less a risk. There was a good, realistic chance the plugin would stay at ten or twenty thousand installations. Not a problem, we could live with that. We gave it our best, nobody died, nobody’s hungry because of the failure, and that’s it.

If you’re looking for a plugin or a plugin idea that’s a “sure thing”, that won’t fail, that “everybody wants” this is not a story for you. I don’t have such recipes, nor do I believe they exist. You win some; you lose some. That’s the nature of any business.

How things unfolded

This is an excerpt from our publically available changelog. Reading the whole thing, and especially the dates will give you a glimpse into the most important thing to remember – consistency and persistency. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was this plugin. This, shortened version focuses on most important events in the past year;

September 5th, 2016
• we took over development
• the plugin had less than 10k installations

November 29th, 2016
• passed 20k installations mark and 100k downloads
• new version of plugin comes out every Monday

January 3rd, 2017
• passed 30k installations
• features lock achieved – keeping things simple!

February 6th, 2017
• passed 40k installations
• gained momentum for +10k /month and kept it for +6 months

March 2nd, 2017
• passed 50k installations mark
• ran the first in-plugin survey, 2,000 people answered – they want drag&drop and leads generating functionality

April 3rd, 2017
• passed 60k installations
• still adding new themes – now at 17

May 7th, 2017
• passed 70k installations and 300k downloads
• haven’t had a bug report in months

June 7th, 2017
• passed 80k installs
• we’ve slowed down plugin updates to twice a month

July 8th, 2017
• passed 90k installs
• second in-plugin survey shows users love our funny, cartoonish designs, but would also like to see photograph-based designs

August 5th, 2017
• passed 100k installs & 515k downloads
• third in-plugin survey shows people prefer MailChimp way above any other mailing service – 17 times (!?) more than the second runner GetResponse

How to gain 100,000 users? Easy!

Find a problem that a lot of people using WordPress have. Solve it by creating a quality, bug-free plugin. Provide excellent support, promote the plugin everywhere and continue doing so for at least a year. There you go! Easy peasy, right?

Everything written above is true. In fact, I’d say all those things are required for a successful plugin. The problem is they are not enough! How so? You need luck! The more effort you put in, the less luck you’ll need, but it never goes away as a deciding factor. If WP.org one day decides to make their search statistics public you’ll be able to analyse what people need the most and make such a plugin. But you don’t have that data, so there’s the first piece of the puzzle that has to be replaced by luck or a hunch.

If you’re still waiting for the silver bullet and the big secret that enabled us to get the second plugin (first was Google Maps Widget) up to 100k installations you’re out of luck. If there were such a recipe, everybody would be using it and where’s the fun in that.

We lied. It’s not easy.

There’s no course, webinar or ebook for sale here, so no need to bullshit you. Repeating these number with any random plugin is not possible. Or to be a bit less pessimistic – it’s possible but not financially feasible and very difficult.

If you’re a one-man-company with limited or non-existing financial resources for building a free plugin, you’ll soon realize that the game is rigged against you. WordPress (obviously) doesn’t pay you per download or active user so why are you investing resources into a free plugin? Because you want to give back? Great, but then don’t treat the plugin as a job and evaluate it solely on numbers. It’s much more than that. If you’re doing it to promote yourself or some other products, think about the ROI. Is it feasible or could you do better with just paying for ads or sponsored articles?

Days of creating a great plugin, putting it on WP.org and waiting till users come are long gone. There are a million of little things that big companies do to optimise their WP.org plugin page. From hiring copywriters to having a dedicated staff that answers support questions in forums. “Well, I don’t care what big companies do” – fair enough, you don’t have to. The problem is the bar has been raised, and users expect a lot for exactly zero dollars. Sounds fucked up? It is! At the moment that’s how the game is rigged.

What’s with all the updates!?

Doing an update once a week, like we had, could be labeled as extreme. Many would say that something like once a month is “normal” except in emergencies when a critical bug is discovered. True, once a week is a tight schedule to keep, both for you, the developer, and for your users because it seems they never have the latest version of your plugin, and they constantly have to update it. To make matters worse, they probably don’t want updates nor can they see what you improved, so the update is “worthless waste of their time”.

Doing small updates increases your chances of not introducing new bugs. Since you’re not making huge changes to the code, you can examine the new code properly and test it. This tactic has worked wonders for us. We haven’t had a bug report in months! Happy users will install your plugin again, and they won’t remove it. They will also promote it in the most natural, non-bullshit way. So by keeping it bug-free, you’re not only doing a proper job but helping yourself in a big way.

If you’re looking for a silver bullet, a quick fix to get your numbers up, or to cut corners – sorry. Don’t have those.

Constant updates also keep the “last updated” tag on WP.org fresh. Nobody wants to install a plugin that hasn’t been updated in months and years. It shows that you care, that the plugin is alive and supported. By this point, you may be thinking we did weekly updates for the sake of updates, but that’s not true. Every update we did brought something new to the plugin. A new theme, new feature, a bug fix – maybe it’s small, but we never faked it! “Who the hell cares, nobody looks at the changelogs or diffs anyway” – yes, 99.9% people don’t (and don’t know how to). It boils down to doing a good job versus pretending to do a good job. At some point, if you’re pretending, it will show. So if you can’t do updates once a week – don’t. Do them as often as you can so that they remain meaningful.

Getting two 5-star reviews per day

In roughly 330 days we got 600 reviews out of which 560 are 5-star ones! That’s 1.8 reviews per day, but if you ignore weekends, it’s 2+ per day. And the whopping 94% of 5-star ones is also nothing to sneeze at!

Depending on my mood I’d label the majority of free plugin users as either lazy or just plain ungrateful. Why is it so difficult to leave a review? Does it take more than 2 minutes? Isn’t that the least you can do to say thank you to someone who invested hundreds of hours in a plugin? If you maintain a free plugin, I’m 100% sure you’ve asked yourself those questions. I don’t have all the answers, but I do have an answer to getting more reviews.

Please don’t buy reviews. Not because it’s “not nice” but because you can’t buy enough to make a difference without being caught by WP.org and having all your reviews removed.

Ask for reviews! Period! But before you “nag” users and remind them they have a voice make sure they like your plugin. That’s why you never ask for a review the second they install the plugin. They just installed it! How can they know if it’s good!? So wait, either for a predefined amount of time – a few days, or when you’re sure they use the plugin. For instance, if it’s a widget based plugin when you detect an instance of it is active for a few days. And yes, make sure the notification can be removed without problems.

Note to self: do not engage with selfish trolls who give you 1-star reviews because their parents didn’t love them.

Promoting beyond WP.org

If you don’t promote the plugin beyond the WP repo, you don’t stand a chance. I’d be more than ecstatic if someone could prove me wrong but even with the best keywords relying solely on users finding your plugin through the search interface is risky at best. If not for anything else you need outside promotion for the “I’ve seen this plugin on XYZ blog, it must be good, I’ll install it” effect. People just don’t trust things they see for the first time. And getting them to see (and remember) your plugin for the second, third or forth time takes resources – mostly time.

This isn’t a “how to promote your WP plugin” article so I won’t go into details. Telling you to use “all available promotional channels” is a shitty, as-broad-as-they-get advice, but it’s the shortest and the most honest one I can give. There’s no silver bullet. No, just by getting an article on this or that blog won’t do you any good. “But that blog is the biggest thing since sliced bread” – that’s bullshit. Trust me, don’t go after unicorns. You’re better off spending resources (and that includes money) on ten smaller blogs than a single huge one. One tweet, regardless of who tweeted it, also won’t do much. A hundred tweets might. Patience and consistency win in the long run.

What’s next?

Unfortunately, after you pass the 100k installations mark the next one is not 110k but 200k. That makes tracking the progress a bit harder. In theory, it’ll take us until June 2018 to get to 200k, but we won’t have any numbers to show us how we’re doing.

Users prefer popular plugins. It gives them a sense of security. Understandably, if thousands of people are using something then it can’t be that bad, and if it works for them, it might work for me too. So, in that regard, we expect to keep our growth rate of about 10k per month since there aren’t many maintenance plugins with over 100 thousand installations.

The number of downloads is also a good indicator, and we do monitor those. However, it’s crucial to understand that downloads only serve as a trend indicator. You can’t rely on them to gauge the number of installations. The number of new installations can be ballparked from the number of downloads and versions distribution chart. But churn rate plays a vital role, and WP.org doesn’t provide any insight into it.

We’ll continue to add new designs to the plugin. Features – not that much. We want to keep it simple because that proved to work. It doesn’t mean new features won’t be added but don’t expect the plugin to grow into a beast. We value users’ input but have to be careful in deciding if something is one person’s wish or a request from 10% of users.

Hopefully, in a year, will write a new article with “200,000” in its title 😉

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Published on August 7, 2017 by Gordan; modified on December 28, 2017. Filed under: , .

Gordan runs Web Factory Ltd and has nearly 10 years of WordPress development experience. When not wrangling code, he loves writing about WordPress and he's always thinking about the next WP project to get involved with.

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