This week my WordPress plugin Print My Blog reached 1,000 active installs. While that pales in comparison to the “big names” we all recognize, it’s nice validation and higher than the average plugin on the WordPress.org repository (someone researched it and found 90% of plugins have fewer than 10 active installs… or something like that. If it was you, please comment!)
I’d like to both reflect and share what got it to that point. I hope this may be of some use to others on the road. I don’t want to prescribe “how to get 1000 active installs in a year”, but instead just tell you what I did and let you be the judge. Because the truth is I don’t know which activities I did directly lead to this, and which were actually a waste of time. But here’s my best guess.
I have a somewhat uncommon interest in wanting to know about my ancestors; but also feel an accompanying preoccupation in wanting to be known by my posterity. In college, I heard about the concept of “the Digital Dark Age“- the idea that in the future all the glutinous amounts of information we’re producing will be untraceable. People won’t know anything about us because it’s all in unreadable formats and decayed mediums. They’ll probably know more about the generation before us because their information was stored on simple, physical formats, like paper.
I personally use Print My Blog to preserve my blog’s stories for future generations. I described how I used it to backup my stories to Family Search. Being a user of the plugin myself has helped me prioritize features and bugfixes, and understand the use case much better than had I not.
At our local WordPress meetup, I befriended a retirement blogger with a very active following. I tried to help her with a few technical aspects of her website, and she decided to reblog a few of my posts on the topic of preserving your blog’s stories.
Usually, I have 0-2 comments on my posts, but when she reblogged the ones she rebooted got more like 50. From that I got a lot of valuable feedback on my ideas for the plugin. For instance, my original idea was to just make Family Search integration, but thanks to that feedback I learned many more people just wanted a physical copy of their blog. That information probably saved me months of unfruitful effort making something unused.
When I had an initial version of Print My Blog ready, she reblogged my announcement post too, which helped get it in front of probably a few hundred potential users (whereas my blog’s following only put it in front of maybe a dozen).
I’m no UX expert, but I’ve tried to keep the plugin really simple to use. It turned out there’s actually already quite a few other options for creating a low-tech copy of your WordPress website (like Anthologize, MPL Publisher, Bloxp, to name a few). But one of the differences was Print My Blog managed to keep it really simple.
Here’s a few concrete examples of how I’ve tried to keep the plugin simple for users:
- After the plugin is activated, you immediately get redirected to the plugin’s page. That prevents new users from activating and it and immediately wondering “Um, now what?”
- Hide as many options and settings as possible. Users can successfully print their entire blog in less than a minute without wondering about any settings. (This has become tricky with all the options that have been requested- but I still initially hide almost all of them, so most users aren’t bothered with them.)
- Leave the heavy-lifting to the browser. The other WordPress plugins that fill a similar need usually produce a PDF or eBook server-side. That is better in some ways, but it means that folks using cheap shared hosting often run into problems when they try to print a big blog. Print My Blog can handle blogs that are thousands of posts long even when they’re hosted on a cheap server because most of the work is done by the browser.
My day job is being a software developer, but I’ve learned that there is often fabulous software out there that nobody knows about, nor will they ever use, just because they haven’t heard about it.
So I’ve tried to also be proactive in marketing the plugin. I’ve written a post more-or-less every month, describing some problem Print My Blog solves. I’ve shared them on twitter and the wpmail.me mailing list. I’m pretty sure there’s a lot more I could do to market it better (like marketing more to actual bloggers, especially those with a natural concern for what will happen to their blogs after they’re gone). But I’ve tried to keep it somewhat balanced with the time I spend in development.
Similarly, I try to also make sure I’m staying on top of the support questions. I’m giving these people free help, but they’re also giving me free advice. I’ve tried to apply their advice on what features to develop, how I could make the plugin more intuitive, and what to blog about next.
I’ve blogged about and tried my best to never build features (and sometimes even fix bugs) until I get user feedback that validates the need for them.
For example, at first there were absolutely NO options in the plugin. None. It could be used to print your entire blog, and that was it. Later on, folks requested to just print a specific category or date range.
Because I wasn’t working on my own ideas, I was able to be really responsive to what real users were actually needing. I think that also helped me avoid a lot of wasted time. And what did I do when there was no more unaddressed user feedback? I’d try to get more feedback by blogging and adding call-outs for feedback inside the plugin.
I’ve been developing this plugin for about a year, so it’s hardly been an overnight success. Folks with an established following have much more successful, and quick, plugin launches. But for me, I’ve needed to be persistent.
Each month I’ve spent about 12 hours on it. Since April I’ve been doing monthly transparency reports about it.
For the first few months I faced the obvious chicken-and-egg problem: my plugin wouldn’t come up in searches on Google or WordPress.org because it had NO active installs. So progress was pretty slow (which is doubly why getting some initial help from a friend at the WordPress meetup was really helpful.) So I had to keep at it before things started to snowball.
Now that you’ve heard what I thought worked, it may be helful to identify what didn’t. I may very well be wrong about them, and I’d be glad to hear from others with dissenting views on them.
I spent a few hours translating the plugin into French (oui je parle un peut de francais). Except I didn’t realize that because the translations are handled by WordPress.org, I couldn’t actually approve the translations, and so French users still didn’t see them while using the plugin.
I think I could spend some more time getting to know the ropes (which would probably be useful too) but I don’t believe the few translations that have already been made have had a significant effect on active installs.
Having said that, I do believe making your plugin translation-ready is inexcusably easy, and an important way to make it accessible to the majority of non-English speaking WordPress users. But it might be left to native speakers, and those with the necessary permissions.
Print My Blog adds my blog’s most recent post about Print My Blog to users’ “WordPress News” dashboard widget. To me, that seemed appropriate: users would probably want to hear what’s new in the plugin; and if not, they could permanently dismiss them.
Alas, according to my website’s stats, even with 1,000 active installs, that link in the dashboard news probably only leads 5 or so visitors to my site per month.
I’ve been doing monthly transparency reports of the plugin, and it’s been good for me to remember what happened, and hopefully helpful to other plugin developers. So they’ve been good- but have they led to more active installs than any other content marketing?
I think most users don’t really care how I use my time developing the plugin. They mostly just care that it works and meets their needs. I plan to continue being transparent, but I’m not sure if it has led to more active installs (or more donations).
I’ve wanted to fund plugin development entirely through donations, and I’m not sure if it is really working. If I were billing the market average for the tasks I’ve been doing, I would have charged over $5,000, whereas donations so far have amounted to $100.
I think it has been good to try to have the plugin full-featured and fully meet users needs, rather than crippling it unless you buy the upgrade. But I’m ready to start developing a pro version that will meet the extra needs of users who actually earn an income off Print My Blog.
I think there’s more I could do to try to make the donations business model work, but I’m ready to try something different.
If you’re a user of Print My Blog, what led you to use it? Or if you’re a WordPress plugin developer, what do you think has helped your plugin get more traction? I read and respond to all comments 😁.
Note: the featured image was done by my 6 year-old; it’s her doing a jump kick at Kung Fu. I thought her dedication and ferocity were an amusing metaphor for the plugin’s development.