This guide is written for individuals and organizations who have decided to build an Ecosystem Plugin.
You’ve decided to build an Ecosystem Plugin. Awesome. The timing is great and I’m excited to see what you build.
I’ve written this guide to provide you with a framework for you and your team as you plan and execute on the work.
There are three things you need in order to get started:
- Clearly defined audience – An Ecosystem Plugin is designed to serve a specific audience. The key factor is clarity. Regardless of size, can you clearly describe an audience that your plugin is designed to serve? A test for an audience is the individual: can you name an individual who is part of the audience you’ve defined? Create a list of key individuals that represent your audience. You’ll be connecting with them often.
- Clearly defined problem(s) for your identified audience – An Ecosystem Plugin is designed to solve a specific problem or set of problems for the audience it serves. Once you’re clear on the audience, the next step is understanding the problems they have. Solutions don’t matter yet. You need to be able to articulate and validate your understanding of the problems they have.
- Business model for solving the problem – With an audience and problem, the next step is clarity on the business model of your Ecosystem Plugin. Free, freemium, and premium each have benefits and challenges and it’s important to choose a model that aligns with the audience you’ve chosen and your own business capabilities and experience.
Getting these three things clear isn’t easy. This is where plugin creators often get hung up. It’s important, though, and a key indicator of your future success.
If you’re feeling stuck here, let me know – I’d love to help.
Once you’re clear on audience, problems to solve, and business model it’s time to work on the plugin itself.
There are three areas of focus in creating an Ecosystem Plugin:
- Simplifying Decisions – Solving your audience’s problems through product design.
- Streamlining Integrations – Connecting your audience to the related products and services they need through integrations.
- Strategic Partnerships – Forming the relationships with the integration, platform, content, and service providers that focus on your audience.
Let’s get to it!
An Ecosystem Plugin is successful when it designs relevant decisions for its audience directly into the product.
Good examples of this include:
- WooCommerce – WooCommerce is a Monetization plugin, focused on empowering small to medium-sized merchants to sell products online. They simplify decisions by building much of what a merchant needs directly into the core product.
- Yoast – Yoast is an Optimization plugin, focused on helping site owners implemtn search engine optimization best practices. They simplify decisions by walking users through a multi-step question-based setup process and keeping most configuration options tucked away for advanced users.
- Gravity Forms – Gravity Forms is a Creation plugin, focused on helping site owners create forms of all types for a really wide range of needs. They simplify decisions through a product message that conveys “Whatever you need for form creation, whatever form you can imagine, we’ve got you covered”.
The process for simplifying decisions in your Ecosystem Plugin looks like this:
- Evaluate – Talk to your audience. Understand how they use WordPress today (including what they don’t use WordPress for).
- Identify – Identify the key decisions that solve your customer’s problems.
- Validate – Talk to your audience directly and confirm that what you have in mind is actually useful.
- Create – Build those decisions into the Ecosystem Plugin. (For more, see my guide on Developing a Plugin Roadmap)
- Iterate – Confirm that the decisions you implemented are solving your customer’s current problems (by asking them) and continue ongoing improvement.
The main focus here is identifying and integrating the complimentary products and services your customers are already using (or would like to use) that are directly related to the problem you’re focused on solving.
That’s key. We don’t add integrations for their own sake but instead focus on those that our audience has validated as useful and that compliment our efforts to solve their problem.
The process looks like this:
- Evaluate – Talk directly to your audience. What integrations would help address the problem that you’re working on helping them with? What gives them the insights they need? Would this integration help solve their key problem? (Remember, not just any problems – the problem your Ecosystem Plugin is focused on)
- Identify – Identify the integrations that you believe would bring value to the audience you’re serving
- Validate – Take your thoughts and ideas for integrations, develop a roadmap, prepare documentation, proofs of concept, etc., as needed and share them with your audience for their feedback.
- Create – Implement the first steps in your roadmap for a given integration into the plugin.
- Iterate – As the products you’re integrating evolve, make sure your integration evolves with it. Keep working through the roadmap you developed and stay aligned through partnerships.
Simplifying decisions and streamlining integrations are essential to a successful Ecosystem Plugin. They’re just par for the course, though. The magic, the industry shaping impact, is in strategic partnerships.
The two keys to a successful partnership are:
- Shared audience – The closer a potential partner is to being focused exclusively on the audience you serve, the better.
- Aligned incentives – The more clearly a potential partner’s business model aligns with or compliments yours, the better.
Now, while you can’t have a good partnership without a shared audience and aligned incentives, they’re also par for the course.
The most important aspects of a strategic partnership are the relationships you create and maintain between you, your partner, and the audience you’re serving. Invest in the relationships and cultivate mutual trust.
There are different types of strategic partnerships. In developing an Ecosystem Plugin, there are four particular types of partnerships that you want to focus on:
- Integration – A partnership where you connect their product to your shared audience using WordPress.
- Platform – WordPress-as-a-Service (often called “hosting” or “Managed WordPress”) is an important part of the WordPress ecosystem. Partnerships with platform providers will take many different forms and the strategy here is dependent on the amount of overlap they have with your audience and the additional problems (beyond providing WordPress-as-a-Service) that the platform itself is focused on solving.
- Content – A partnership with a subject matter expert who provides relevant thought leadership and guidance to your shared audience. This can take many forms, from sponsorship and commission, to co-production, to acquisition.
- Service – A partnership with service providers who offer services to your shared audience. These can range from freelancers to large agencies to service platforms.
The process for forming strategic partnerships looks like this:
- Identify – Make a list of the partners that you’d like to work with across each of the partner types.
- Validate – Review that list with individuals in your audience and get their feedback. Audience feedback shouldn’t be the deciding factor (they might not have heard of a potential partner who could be perfect), but a key factor.
- Connect – Connect directly with the leadership at a potential partner. Identify who your key contacts are, get to know each other, and build your relationships.
- Align – Work together to ensure alignment on focus (your audience and the problem you’re solving) and clarify incentives. Make sure all involved understand how each other wins. Develop a roadmap for the partnership.
- Initiate – Get started. Focus, where possible, on early wins and getting feedback from your shared audience on the value of the partnership.
- Iterate – Combine audience feedback with your roadmap and keep going. Continue to invest in partner relationships.
That’s the framework! Now let’s get to work. Got questions? Anything unclear? Get help.