Blogging And Helping the WordPress Business Ecosystem

There’s been a good amount of WP drama lately for various reasons, but one of the most important ones is struggling.

Because that’s where many people are in the WordPress community – they struggle. Freelancers work with non-educated customers asking for cheap changes. Agencies have a hard time growing since decent clients tend to avoid WordPress for reasons.

Now, I’m amplifying that for a reason. Of course there are some clients who pay good amounts and look for high quality. But the vast majority of customers are not there yet, and the main reason they are after WordPress is low cost.

WordPress Expectations

Clients cum WordPress Developers
Clients cum WordPress Developers

WordPress is generally marketed as “completely free”, “easy to install”, “easy to set up”. Alongside the core part, there are the Envato themes providing a space ship that build a complete end-to-end solution. And low cost WordPress plugins with one time fee. That creates expectations.

Morten has blogged about the false expectations using WordPress and the end result of the global WordPress marketing. WPML have posted an article about why Drupal developers make x10 more than WordPress developers.

And this is indeed a reality in the global WordPress ecosystem. If you don’t believe me, go check any of the WordPress job sites for freelance gigs, compare the costs of a WordPress site with other solutions (prices by service providers), the salaries of WordPress developers or whatever.

I receive about 20 emails and messages every month from people looking for a cheap WordPress website after they bought a theme from ThemeForest. They want it immediately, and they want the site to be beautiful, fast, and cheap.

When it comes to price, I stick to two main separated cases.

  1. I’m happy to put up something quickly for a friend who needs a simple and easy solution that’s not business critical, they’re just starting and have zero budget. Also, I’m incredibly happy that WordPress is easy to set up, since that helps students and people from all around the world to get started quickly.
  2. But business solutions cost money. And custom websites, plugins, platforms are expensive – because a good end solution requires real development chops and experience in different niches – performance optimization, security, marketing, user experience and many other fields.

That said, devaluing the experience of developers who happen to use WordPress is wrong. Because this leads to a large percentage of terrible themes, broken plugins, tons of non-satisfied customers paying non-experienced people for cheap assignments.

Real and successful businesses appreciate value, and are willing to pay enough for a solution that will generate them millions and more in ROI. GlobalNews nailed it in their case study for WordPress.com VIP:

One of the things that makes WordPress powerful is that it is open source and has many plugins, but when you have a project with this much riding on it, and you need a professional product that performs, you want to be cautious. Fairly early on, we knew that we wanted to go with VIP. We wanted that level of support, having people understand how to make WordPress a secure and high performance environment – there was real value there.

Sadly, WordPress.com VIP is one of the very few channels that lands great customers. And only a few are the chosen ones that are allowed to work with their clients. While this is another painful topic in general, we don’t help ourselves at all by undervaluing all of our hard work and underselling the value of a successful WordPress product.

Because real experts rarely turn to WordPress, since it’s a popular playground for Open Source zealots or people who have just started, or non-technical people looking for other ways to monetize their services, unaware of the bigger picture or what could happen in reality.

Let’s face it – WordPress is often getting laughed at even at PHP conferences, despite of the fact that PHP developers in general are also often mocked by Java, .NET, Ruby, Python engineers, and PHP salaries tend to be lower.

Blogging and the Internet Marketing World

Some say that blogging is dead due to social media or other communication mediums. I don’t think that it has the same influence as it had 5-8 years ago, but blogging is still essential, especially in the industry powered by a platform initially designed for blogging.

WordPress Bloggers and Tech People

Because people still use Google a lot. And they stumble upon various resources. Often they end up at marketing and sales pages designed by shady companies with no real background in WordPress development – probably some of the 99%. And since the 99% are technically the majority of our community, it’s really easy to get fooled if you’re not involved with the process.

It’s very similar to the Internet marketing community where marketing itself does not require education or certification, it’s incredibly easy to get started and claim that you’re a super-mega-marketer yourself. It’s easy to pull some fake stats and publish an e-book that teaches other how to sell and generate massive profit.

And there is a stunning percentage of frauds there as well – or even worse, people who don’t realize that they know nothing in the first place.

But at least Internet marketing requires exposure. And usually the more you got, the better you are in your game.

And I’ll get back to blogging in a bit.

Technical WordPress Development Is Consuming

Many of the reputable WordPress agencies that I know of build massive WordPress solutions – maintaining large WordPress multisites, or working with banks, telecoms, enormous media networks and other organizations asking for white labeled work. This results in three things:

  1. A single project takes many months or over a year to launch
  2. The team is really busy and heavily involved with the development, code reviews, devops, server management, business strategy, automated testing, and what not
  3. White-labeled projects prohibit you from listing them in your portfolio

The best projects we’ve worked for were for two banks, automotive clients, large media websites, large educational organizations, some international health institutions, and others in the tourism and event management industries. None of the customers behind those projects let us share what we’ve done for them, even if those are also the most complicated solutions we’ve built for some of the largest brands that everyone has heard of.

Due to the white label policy.

Which means that, unlike with Internet marketing, our community is also comprised of lots of amateurs and a small number of experienced consultants and agencies, but often the good ones won’t shine since their best work is under NDAs. And they’re so busy solving real problems that they don’t have the time or expertise to invest in marketing – plus, there’s nothing they can market really, if most of that ends up to be the intellectual property owned by the client.

Here Comes the Blogging for Google

As we discussed above, blogging is what people stumble upon when looking for a service or a product unless (or even after) they have a friend to consult with. And by searching for Google results they form their opinion on the market, average costs, and types of services.

That’s what I do all the time when I’m researching various services that I haven’t used before and I know nothing about the market, process or costs.

For reference, here are some of the search terms from DevriX‘s Webmaster Tools – we get some incoming leads based on those queries:

  • promote your website
  • WordPress agency
  • WordPress SaaS
  • within my budget
  • content development agency
  • WordPress development company
  • promote WordPress plugin
  • how to update my WordPress website
  • WordPress development agency
  • WordPress plugin development framework
  • WordPress project management
  • WordPress development
  • website development company
  • open source development company
  • WordPress security services

Obviously, that’s not the complete list. And that’s not the point.

All of the above (or at least most of those) are search queries that a business owner (or someone in charge) would search for in order to find a solution for their problem.

"Truth" is what Google lists on page 1.
“Truth” is what Google lists on page 1.

I have done some research myself and I have a VA who regularly does similar internal case studies in order to identify what’s the status of the market, what sort of companies rank for those at the first several pages, who pays for AdWords, and looking at different charts at social networks, groups, communities, forums, blog lists and so on. One of the key metrics is blog posts and pages at company websites and blogs selling their services – the ones describing what’s offered and what are the costs.

There are TONS of articles written by non-experienced people, or services offered by high-school students or part-time freelancers and marketers, or simply bad deals that are explicitly designed to generate a huge volume of low-cost sales without providing any real quality whatsoever.

The end result? Clients spend an hour or two online – Facebook and LinkedIn groups even, and determine that an average website costs $200-$500, 95% of the WordPress maintenance and feature request packages are between $29/month and $99/month, and due to the massive amount of ThemeForest themes – that’s gotta be the right way to go and the common price for a website.

Blogging for Education

I got some positive feedback from community people that I respect a lot about my recent blogging efforts. That’s one of the reasons I keep doing that. Another one is Morten’s comment:

Change should happen from the inside out, not the other way around. If we keep underpricing our services and products, we will never be able to reach a profitable business model that allows us to build stable and reliable products and dedicate happy team members constantly working on improving a product or the business model while increasing the customer satisfaction levels.

Over the past few years I’ve tested the low-end market for a couple of weeks, twice. It was a nightmare. There’s no way in hell that one can build a custom solution that’s fast, stable, secure etc in a few hundred bucks without extensive communication, revisions and so forth. Life doesn’t work this way.

So we kept offering high-end services that allow us to focus on standards and best practices, iterations, QA process and customer satisfaction. Because quality costs money.

One of my good WordPress friends even told me that my blogging often sounds like a rant and conveys that we work with terrible clients and deal with uneducated people. That’s actually not the case – we work with a small number of clients who had a hard time finding a capable team of experts, and are fully aware that quality costs money. We can’t deal with everyone else nowadays since educating common customers is getting harder and harder.

Some of my other peers linked their latest articles for a quick review this week – most of them implied that WordPress is kinda okay for MVPs since “the client wanted something quick that kind of works”, or “the $59 ThemeForest theme is where the market needs it to be”.

I read both of those as: “WordPress is good for small projects or quick and dirty prototype work”, “WordPress does so much for free that $200 should be enough for a good list of changes” and “$59 themes are fine and they’re coded well enough not to kill businesses, and they don’t violate all of the possible best practices”.

Or the other type of articles serves clients who are already aware that quality costs money, they’ve already worked with good developers and that blogging effort simply assists that tiny community that doesn’t really need that much help when we have a gigantic elephant in the bathtub.

We keep fighting ourselves and ruining our business efforts. Image credit: http://www.worth1000.com/
We keep fighting ourselves and ruining our business efforts.
Image credit: http://www.worth1000.com/

So, what could we do to make that better?

For me, the false messages, low-end marketing and poor customer education is a global problem that impacts the entire WordPress community and stops us from moving forward. Because:

  1. customers read everywhere that WordPress is easy, setup takes 5min, there are tons of free stuff and they barely see anything re: quality and real costs
  2. theme and plugin authors keep competing on price, and bringing their rates down which drastically affects their quality
  3. lots of free plugins through notices on install or warnings even, since there is zero financial backing up due to customers used to not paying for anything in general
  4. serious businesses are afraid to use WordPress since it breaks, it’s insecure or whatever they’ve seen caused by clients using it the wrong way
  5. non-technical people don’t have an incentive to get better, since clients look for cheap quality and are fine with purchasing a WP with a ThemeForest theme (lack of education for everyone)
  6. good developers stay away from WordPress since dealing with that sort of clients is a nightmare, salaries are low, freelance rates are unrealistic

That list could go on and on, but educating the low-level customers is the main problem behind all of those.

But a picture is worth a thousand words, and so is a Google search screenshot:

That's what new business owners learn first about the cost of our services.
That’s what new business owners learn first about the cost of our services.

Think about it. When a brand like Spotify, Netflix, a payment gateway goes international, where do they go first? They target countries with financially educated residents. People who appreciate value, and are willing to pay for a good service.

That sort of culture is the reason why lots of large brands prefer enterprise technologies and companies – ones that seem more financially stable, reliable and trustworthy.

What I would like to ask all of my fellow WordPress bloggers is:

Blog more for that group of people. 

Write more for all business owners that are not cheapskates, but just don’t know better. People who look at Google search results or see Facebook and LinkedIn ads for $199 websites all the time. People who statistically see 19 cheap and low-quality solutions out of every 20 searches.

Things won’t change overnight. But the more quality resources there are online explaining pricing and quality, the better educated people would be. The easier it would be to link to those resources and cross-link them in blog posts.

If we don’t start helping ourselves from the inside out, we will never put WordPress on the map of platforms that many global brands would ever consider for their redesign or new platform. We will keep competing with Squarespace and Wix instead of providing real value with a platform that is proven to be stable enough for many brands already.

While you could still target your specific audience with your blogging efforts, don’t turn your back on the millions of prospects who simply don’t know better.

8 thoughts on “Blogging And Helping the WordPress Business Ecosystem

  1. There is truth in what you’re saying here, Mario. The change needs to come from the inside out. 99% of the WordPress economy operates as of they have an inferiority complex. Meaning they charge unsustainable rates and go out of business. Consider Envato theme and plugin authors. Most clients (and many agencies) rely on these themes and plugins, yet most authors disappear after a couple of years, because the business model is unsustainable.

    If you’re a WordPress developer/studio, either you are aiming for higher quality clients, or you are facing the entropy of your business. I keep seeing it, over and over again.

    Blogging for higher level clients, the folks that understand risk mitigation, the importance of website security, the ROI of performance, or even outlining project goals…these are the people we need to be attracting.

    Writing for the audience you want eventually brings awareness of your services and expertise.

    I’m not down on clients or inexpensive developers either. But re-educating the market is slow. If the leaders of the community don’t frame the costs of effective web development realistically, then the followers surely won’t pick up on those cues either.

    I get that some services target the lower-end of the market, but they need to acknowledge the limitations that price and scope put on a service, and reiterate that higher end services cost more. DIY-ers will always exist, but 98% of those projects do not accomplish the project goals due to inefficiency.

    1. they charge unsustainable rates and go out of business

      If I had a dollar for every time a prospect emailed me with: “… because our previous developer went bankrupt and had to get a job”. There are so many wrong things going on.

      What I refuse to understand is why the low-cost percentage is THIS high. I kept comparing this with other industries – cars, airline tickets, food, other software development industries.

      What I found out is the following:

      1) The amplitude between the cheap solution and the professional solution is never that huge
      2) Percentage of low-cost, mid-tier and high-end is well-balanced, ours is actively racing to the bottom
      3) People generally don’t expect a high-quality product when they don’t pay a lot

      People know that a McDonalds hamburger can’t compare to a delicious salad with a steak. And low-cost airline tickets aren’t 200 times cheaper than business class, and people don’t expect to get the same service and benefits.

      It’s a common thing for customers looking for a WordPress solutions to get fooled by how beautiful a ThemeForest theme is or how they have 95% of what they want for $59, and expect that this is how business is done. They don’t know better. We don’t teach them better.

      Blogging for higher level clients, the folks that understand risk mitigation, the importance of website security, the ROI of performance, or even outlining project goals…these are the people we need to be attracting.

      First off, that’s correct. In the short run.

      In the long run, we’re ignorant to what happens in our industry and the fact that those clients that we need to be attracting are running away from our niche since we don’t pay enough attention to the other 99% of the clients (this works both ways). The field gets oversaturated and it is getting harder and harder to find talent.

      Many good engineers leave the community since they get frustrated, want to work on decent projects for good salaries.

      It’s similar to India. Many companies are afraid of working with Indian companies or contractors since they bad rep over the past 20 years. However, a large number of Indian developers work in companies like Facebook, and Microsoft’s CEO now is Indian.

      If you’re determined to work with good Indians, there are enough of them – as long as you spend a few months interviewing, testing etc until you find a good fit among the endless pool of low-quality contractors. And most decent businesses simply refuse to risk and waste time and go elsewhere.

      It’s essential to add that I have many Indian friends, one of our engineers is also from Ahmedabad. But it took me a couple of years to find someone talented, knowledgable and able to communicate among the hundreds of CVs.

      That’s what WordPress is for serious businesses. We keep focusing on blogs and small sites, that are notoriously getting hacked, theme markets keep selling themes for a few bucks, code quality of WP solutions and experience of engineers is being laughed at during PHP conferences around the world.

      So, we may keep ignoring all of that and let all of the decent clients leave the sinking ship, or we can allocate part of our sales time educating the ones who don’t know better.

  2. Just earlier today I commented on a post over at mattreport.com and said it was “preaching to the choir.” I do sometimes feel like all the AMEN’S I get on this subject are from the choir, but thank you for highlighting the importance of continuing to put the information out there anyway.

    1. Absolutely, Carrie – I find that to be a major problem that may very well ruin the entire community. See my reply to John’s comment above as well, for a sci-fi alternative reality of what we’re really dealing with.

      I don’t think that any comparisons with other industries are applicable here. Unlike other places, most clients believe that they’ll get a quality solution that brings cash with a ThemeForest theme, and that would be reputable, fast, stable and so forth. I don’t mind TF clients as long as they’re aware what they are paying for – and the expensive marketing naturally does not stress on that “side effects”.

  3. There are a lot of things to counter in your post, but I fundamentally disagree with you on most of it. There will always be a market that are looking for cheap results, be it WordPress of [insert other product] – they aren’t client you or I want.

    The one point I want to respond to is your claims about the apparent low quality leads you get (which must help you form views like this) and that [according to you] the industry is underpricing itself. When I looked at the DevriX website – you list pretty much up front, that your hourly rate is $70/hr.

    Doesn’t that a) set the bar pretty low, and b) counter your argument that people should be charging more / elevating the industry?

    1. Thanks for the comment, Ben – most of my posts tend to be unpopular, or discussing things other people don’t feel comfortable sharing in public.

      Correct me if I’m wrong, did we not discuss some real estate outsourcing and argued on pricing earlier last year about the cost of my employees? I may be wrong here.

      Check out what I replied to John’s comment above – I discuss the dynamics in other industries and from my perspective the amplitudes and contrasts here are WAY higher. Also, what I noted as an addition, is that if we keep ignoring the lower tier, this will result in an environment where decent clients stay away from a platform that’s mostly known as a simple blogging tool, and the majority of the websites are slow, throw notices, are hacked all the time etc etc.

      I may be wrong, but a good number of our high-end or enterprise clients don’t even want to discuss a possible solution based on WordPress due to everything that happens with the low tier. You will never see that happening in the Java or .NET communities, where I’m also active (being Java certified and having co-organized .NET conferences twice).

      The one point I want to respond to is your claims about the apparent low quality leads you get (which must help you form views like this) and that [according to you] the industry is underpricing itself.

      Great comment, and the follow-up questions as well.

      The short version is – that pricing model works for us now. We do raise prices when we are fully booked for 3 months upfront and hire new people. The last raise was 6 months ago.

      Right now we’re not fully booked and I don’t see a cost-effective reason to raise prices without harming the team. Every now and then I pitch higher price at a meeting and it hasn’t worked out so far.

      Our main source of work (if not all of it) are partnerships and ongoing projects, so that fee allows us to land $30K – $50K projects without having to bring our rates down. I’ve also discussed rates with dozens of agencies working in our field based in the US and UK – almost all of them charge less than $100/hr and I’m talking specifically about companies doing high-end work – heavy media sites, custom platforms etc etc.

      We don’t have the geographical advantage of meeting clients on site and sales is fairly tough without partnerships, hence our model. Almost all of our successful partners and friends running good WP businesses work with local clients – US, Canada, UK, Netherlands, Australia – and our local market is 10 years behind.

      I’m open to suggestions and remarks though, if you feel like that’s incorrect and there’s a better way to do it.

Your thoughts?