Ecosystem Plugins

The Next Big Opportunities in WordPress

Summary

  • WordPress is the Operating System of the Open Web. At 33% of the web and growing, organizations choose WordPress because it’s free, ubiquitous, focused on the end user, and it’s theirs.
  • WordPress faces three key obstacles to reaching the next 20%: limited resources, too many decisions, and missing integrations.
  • I introduce a new concept that I’m calling an Ecosystem Plugin. Ecosystem Plugins, like WooCommerce, offer a suite of functionality for a specific audience that simplifies decision making and streamlines integrations with the products and services that audience uses.
  • There are big opportunities for those who build Ecosystem Plugins, the tech products that integrate with them, and site owners that use them. Specific examples I recommend include CRM, Ecommerce, ERP, Insights, and Automation.

Report Overview

At the end of February, 2019 I left my employer and began working independently. One of my first initiatives was a research project.

At the beginning of my research I set out to answer several questions:

  1. Of the fastest growing technology product companies, how many of them offer integrations with WordPress?
  2. How useful are the integrations that exist?
  3. What opportunities are available to make better integrations?

Product Categories

To begin my research I analyzed and categorized over one hundred technology product companies, beginning with the first one hundred in the SaaS1000 list.

Of the product companies I analyzed, seventy percent fit within the following categories:

  1. Optimization – Products that improve the efficiency and effectiveness of an organization.
  2. Monetization – Products that facilitate the sale of physical and digital goods and services.
  3. Insights – Products that process data sources and provide insights.


This report is focused on a particular piece of insight I gained during the initial research, the discovery of the Ecosystem Plugin.

WordPress Plugins

WordPress plugins are typically one of two types:

  1. Feature plugins – A plugin that introduces a specific feature or set of features to WordPress. Examples include:
    1. Adding an additional block to the WordPress Editor
    2. Adding a Widget to the Dashboard
    3. Generating a sitemap

  2. Integration plugins – A plugin that integrates an external product with WordPress. Examples include:
    1. Adding subscribers to a mailing list
    2. Receiving shipping quotes for a customer’s order
    3. Connecting a user’s data

I realized that there is a third type of plugin, though.

Ecosystem Plugins

An ecosystem plugin is a special type of WordPress plugin that does three things:

  1. Adds a suite of functionality to WordPress designed for a specific audience
  2. Provides an integration layer for third-party products that serve the same audience
  3. Influences and shapes the ecosystem it serves over time

WooCommerce is an example of an ecosystem plugin. It introduces basic ecommerce functionality to WordPress and facilitates access to hundreds of products that add additional functionality. According to BuiltWith data, 22% of the ecommerce stores within the top million sites use WooCommerce, more than any other tracked provider. WooCommerce has influenced and shaped ecommerce and each of the ecosystems it serves.

Next, let’s look at WordPress the Operating System.

WordPressOS

More organizations than ever use WordPress as the Operating System for their business. Out of the box, WordPress enables them to manage their sites on the Open Web. Through plugins, it empowers them to do much more, including:

  • Managing customer relationships
  • Fulfilling orders
  • Facilitating donor distributions
  • Sending invoices and receipts
  • Managing employees and contractors
  • Centralizing business operations
  • Tracking and reporting financial data

And why WordPress?

Several key reasons stand out amongst the many for why an organization chooses WordPress:

  1. It’s free – No licensing costs. If an organization wants to use WordPress on the Open Web, all they need is a place to host it.
  2. It’s ubiquitous – WordPress is everywhere. At 33% of the web and growing, nothing else comes close. That means more options for plugins and themes, more developers, and more support.
  3. It’s focused on the user – From the beginning, WordPress was made for non-technical users. It empowered them to create what they wanted to create. Nearly 16 years later, that focus is stronger than ever.
  4. It’s theirs – WordPress is licensed under a General Public License, which gives anyone the freedom to use WordPress however they like for whatever reason they like. They can take it and make it their own.

With all that, why isn’t WordPress already past 50%?

There are three key obstacles that I see:

  • Limited Resources – WordPress is built by volunteers who invest their time and energy into making WordPress better. This has been and will always be a key to its success. The challenge is that the number of volunteers are few, they can only get so much done, and there is a lot to do.
  • Too Many Decisions – With 54,000 plugins and counting in the official plugin directory alone, it’s harder than ever for users to find the best plugins for their needs. A common question at any one of the over 1500 regular WordPress meetups is “What plugin should I use?”  
  • Missing Integrations – Through plugins, WordPress already offers more product integrations than any other platform. Many of the integrations, though, are basic and don’t yet follow best practices. Many more are missing entirely, forcing organizations to use workarounds, switch products, or delay a move to WordPress entirely until an integration is available.

This is where Ecosystem Plugins come in.

The Opportunities

An Ecosystem Plugin is able to serve its audience by addressing each of the three obstacles as opportunities.

You can create Ecosystem Plugins that provide:

  1. Resource Funding – Development is funded by the ecosystem itself through an audience-appropriate business model.
  2. Simplified Decisions – By providing a refined suite of functionality, the plugin removes unnecessary decisions and simplifies those that remain.
  3. Streamlined Integrations – By offering an interface to products that serve the same audience, the plugin is able to streamline the integration process and aggregate the service providers.

Going forward, I see big opportunities in WordPress for creating Ecosystem Plugins that serve specific audiences and address each of the key obstacles.

The individuals and organizations that create these plugins will have the opportunity to influence and shape the ecosystems they serve.

Specific Examples

Based on my research so far across the Optimization, Monetization, and Insights categories, there are five particular opportunities for Ecosystem Plugins I see:

  • Customer Relationship Management (CRM) – Over 40% of the products I analyzed fit within the CRM category and for the majority of them I advised that integration through an Ecosystem Plugin is the ideal approach. I see a big opportunity for an Ecosystem Plugin to provide a great, native, CRM experience in WordPress that integrates tightly with existing offerings and, most importantly, serves as an interface between WordPress and the many CRM-focused product companies that don’t yet have an integration.
  • Ecommerce for Large Businesses – WooCommerce is an ecosystem plugin that serves a wide range of audiences, but is increasingly focused on the needs of small business. As it continues to grow, there is a lot of opportunity for new Ecosystem Plugins that serve specific audiences. The needs of larger businesses stood out particularly to me, including the value of cloud-based computing and processing and a more robust / curated level of integrations with service providers.
  • Audience-specific Insights – Numerous plugins exist that connect raw data to WordPress. Where I see opportunity is to identify the sources of data most relevant to a particular audience and process that data to create actionable insights that the organizations within that audience can use to drive decisions. The Ecosystem Plugin is able to process and surface insights on behalf of the organization and serve as an aggregator of data sources.
  • Enterprise Resourcing Planning (ERP) – Just over 20% of the products I analyzed fit within the ERP category and for nearly all of them I recommended that they integrate through an Ecosystem Plugin. From project management, to scheduling, to team collaboration, I see big opportunity for audience-specific Ecosystem Plugins to provide a great user experience in WordPress and facilitate direct connections to service providers within each ecosystem.
  • Audience-specific Automation – As more organizations turn to automation to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their operations, there is a lot of opportunity for audience-specific Ecosystem Plugins to focus on automation. Plugins will offer interfaces for managing automation within WordPress and serve as an integration layer between the products and services the audience uses.

Guidance

Plugins already exist that are beginning to support these opportunities. In my research I was happily surprised at some of the examples I found.

There is a lot of room for more, though, and I expect to see key players beginning to introduce and develop Ecosystem Plugins in the months ahead.

As you explore building an Ecosystem Plugin, here are a few points of high-level guidance to get you started.

  • Embrace Open Source – Release your plugins in the open and invite contributions.
  • Maintain a high OpenRank Score – I designed OpenRank to guide product managers towards creating plugins with a positive user experience in WordPress. Use OpenRank as a basis for evaluating and measuring your own efforts.
  • Leverage SaaS for Monetization – For most business models and monetization strategies, tying your ecosystem plugin to a SaaS backend is the right approach. Whether free, freemium, or directly premium, a SaaS can provide audience-specific functionality particularly suited to external computing and streamline third-party integrations.
  • Develop Ecosystem Partnerships – Work closely with hosting providers, as well as plugin and theme authors that serve the same audience to co-market and integrate.
  • Market Directly to the Audience – Whether through your own channels or through partners, speak directly to the problems and pain points of the audience you’re serving. Leverage the benefits of open versus closed and position your plugin as the solution for your audience on WordPress.

Next Steps

My research is just getting started and I look forward to sharing data and more insights with you in the coming months.

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Special thanks to Joshua Wold for his illustration and feedback. Also to Alex Denning for his original suggestion to write a report. And to Daniel Vassallo and Matt Geri for their feedback and incorporated improvements.