WordPress succeeds by embracing the superfans, not dismissing them

How smart organizations nurture fans and sustain valuable brands for generations.

Computer with Globe

Last week, a familiar pattern emerged when the WordPress.org website suddenly removed a chart that showed data about the popularity of free plugins. A bunch of people who build WordPress software complained – all the way up to the most prominent developers and business owners, such as Matt Cromwell (GiveWP) and Joost de Valk (Yoast). These longtime WordPress fans called for more transparency in decision-making, as well as an explanation for the removal of this important data, which many people rely upon to build freemium plugin businesses.

The response was mostly silence, with a few vague remarks from Matt Mullenweg, the CEO of Automattic and the co-founder of WordPress who ultimately approves all important decisions for WordPress.org, including this:

This is statistically unsound – for example, nationally representative polls are done with 1,000 people to get the opinion of the whole United States. It dubiously recasts Matt as some sort of noble victim doing “the hardest things.” And it ignores the original point, which is that the WordPress.org team seems unable or unwilling to address the needs of hundreds of their most important contributors.

In today’s article, I want to dig into this last point, and ask:

What happens when an organization abandons its early adopters and biggest fans?

The strangest thing that’s arisen from this episode – which seems to me to be just one instance in a pattern of dismissive behavior toward WordPress power users – is that I have seen a number of people say things like this:

“Everyone needs to be comfortable with the fact that WordPress is Matt’s project, not the community’s.”

That’s from a Post Status Slack post with a bunch of positive emojis on it. Post Status Editor Dan Knauss described Matt as “the guy with all the cards.” In a post that was highly critical of the decision, WP Trends Founder Iain Poulson still concedes the point that plugin developers don’t have much control over the direction that Mullenweg chooses:

“I still believe the plugin directory is a valid marketing channel for a plugin as long as it’s seen for what it is – a closed system we have no control over, that can change, as we’ve seen, overnight.”

While I agree with elements of each of these takes, I want to specifically provide a counterpoint to the idea that “we have no control” over what happens on WordPress.org. I think this is an incorrect belief that is detrimental in two ways. First, it discourages people and drives them away from contributing. Second, if Matt Mullenweg and Automattic make decisions based on the belief that there is no negative outcome to dismissing the needs of the biggest WordPress fans, they are risking business failure and thus jeopardizing the whole open-source WordPress project.

So, here’s my counterpoint:

The majority of the value of WordPress comes from its power users – the early adopters, the plugin developers, the superfans. While alienating this group may not show up on the balance sheet immediately, it is self-defeating for Automattic and the WordPress project over the course of several years.

Before we dig into how I think this plays out over the medium- and long-term, let’s look at some other examples of companies that correctly embrace their superfans.

First, let’s look at professional sports. I think this is actually a great analogy for WordPress, because professional sports teams provide a public good (entertainment, camaraderie) even to those who pay very little or nothing at all. I haven’t been to a Denver Broncos game in years, but I still participate in the excitement of watching the games, seeing my friends dress up in their jerseys and get pumped to support their favorite team, etc. It’s really a city-wide celebration that almost everyone participates in, even though only a small number of people actually buy tickets and most of the money goes to a semi-evil corporation.

The Broncos superfans are the people who paint their faces, tailgate for hours before the game, buy season tickets, host watch parties for their friends, and so on. They are the sports equivalent of plugin developers, WordCamp attendees, and (yes, I’ll say it) developers who write long articles about the inner workings of WordPress.

Let’s say the Broncos decided to suddenly introduce a “no tailgating” rule. It wouldn’t cost much in the short-term – in fact, they might even end up making more money selling beer inside the stadium, and maybe there’d be less of a mess in the parking lots after the game. But this would, unquestionably, destroy the morale of their biggest fans. People would say, “we devote our lives to supporting you, and you don’t even let us have some basic fun!” Over time, a series of changes like this can erode the brand and tank the business – even if no individual decision actually carries a financial cost to the owners of the company. This was the story of the decline of the Montreal Expos, who went from being one of the best teams in baseball to being sold and renamed (to the Washington Nationals) ten years later.

I know many of us prefer fantasy to sports, so let’s look at another analogy.

I was recently driving through the Denver suburbs when I encountered a bizarre vehicle. It looked like your standard family SUV – but it was literally covered in Disney bumper stickers. Every character. Every park. The car’s license plate was something like “WDW AW8TS,” as in Walt Disney World Awaits. This would have been shocking, but it’s not the first time I have seen a car like this – even though I live 1,800 miles from Disney World. I have friends who drove twelve hours roundtrip to Disneyland every month for a year with their two kids to get the most of an annual pass. I went on a Disney Cruise to Alaska a few years ago, and many other guests covered their room doors with dozens of stickers and magnets indicating all the other Disney trips they’d been on around the world.

Disney superfans are intense! But guess what? Even as a sort of mid-range Disney guy, the presence of these superfans gets me really excited and makes me feel like I am part of something special.

If these fans didn’t exist, Disney could still fill the parks and the cruise ships at the same price. But their presence – their energy – makes the entire experience feel different to all the non-superfans that encounter them. The entire Disney brand is “magic” – something that’s obviously not real! But when you’re in the presence of superfans, something absolutely changes and the brand experience unquestionably improves.

The problem, of course, is that superfans are not easy to replace when you chase them away. A new superfan is not born every minute. You cannot split test and optimize the creation of a superfan via Google AdWords. Superfans are a result of years of community nurturing, and eventually older superfans indoctrinate newer superfans – but they only do this when they are proud to be fans and when they are treated like valuable brand ambassadors.


WordPress superfans aren’t Automattic’s biggest paying customers, but they generate most of its brand value

And here is where I arrive at what I believe is the big risk for Automattic and the WordPress project, which, while separate entities, are inescapably intertwined. I believe the pattern of behavior we’ve seen toward superfans indicates that the leaders may not properly understand the source of the value of the WordPress brand and the market in which they are operating.

In the sense that I have friends who work at Automattic, I want each of them to succeed and thrive. In the sense that WordPress’ success is heavily reliant on the stability and funding that comes from Automattic, I want Automattic to thrive. And in the sense that Matt Mullenweg created something wonderful and shared it with the world, I want him to thrive so he can be rewarded for that and keep doing cool stuff with open-source software for decades to come.

Right now, I think the Automattic team believes that they have three groups of customers they need to serve:

  1. WordPress.com users, who are lower-end bloggers and site owners, choosing WordPress.com over Squarespace, Wix or similar.
  2. Enterprise WordPress site owners, who choose WordPress VIP (owned by Automattic) over Amazon Web Services or similar enterprise solutions.
  3. People who use WooCommerce at all levels (tiny to enterprise), since they buy Automattic’s plugins and Automattic receives a small cut of credit card fees on many WooCommerce transactions.

I would argue that Automattic is not really innovating on e-commerce right now, though that may change, and that basically the WooCommerce fees are a cushy deal that results from a large existing, low-attrition install base. (WooCommerce was an excellent acquisition.)

If you look at the other two categories, you’ll see people on the very low end (a few bucks a month) and the very high end (thousands of dollars per month) in direct spending with Automattic and the WordPress brand. (The WordPress trademark itself is owned by a non-profit that Matt Mullenweg created, and Automattic is the only company allowed to use it for profit.)

What’s missing from this equation is everyone in the middle, which includes pretty much all web design and development agencies and most people who develop WordPress plugins and other add-on software. These people do not give a lot of money directly to Automattic, but they account for nearly all of the WordPress superfans.

In fact, these superfans are often knowledgeable enough that they optimize their spending – similar to how lots of Disney superfans create sites like “The Budget Mouse – How to do Disney on any budget.” The fact that superfans are often mischaracterized as “volunteers” (rather than people acting in their career-growth self-interest) adds to the confusion.

It is this gap that concerns me, because I believe the Automattic team may be fundamentally misreading the value of their brand and company. If you look at their income statement, it seems like they are a hosting company. But really they are a brand and experience company, much more like Disney and the Broncos than like GoDaddy or Bluehost. Without the superfans who create (via new open-source add-on software) and promote (via events, word of mouth, WordPress fandom, etc.) the brand experience, the underpinnings of the hosting business that funds Automattic’s operations start to collapse.

Everyone knows WordPress, far fewer people know Automattic

Let’s look at the path that the typical customer takes to paying Automattic. (It is notable, by the way, that they often believe they are “paying WordPress,” and they don’t really even understand what is going on with Automattic as a business entity.)

On the low end, bloggers and small creators use WordPress.com because the word “WordPress” is synonymous with blogging, sort of like how “Xerox it” means make a photocopy and “pass me a Kleenex” means you need to blow your nose. This is a great position to be in – but keep in mind that this is a brand recognition benefit to the one company that has the license to use the WordPress trademark, and thus requires that brand to continue to be held in high regard in the minds of its fans.

The vast majority of the innovation that comes into WordPress comes from “third-party” add-on software, most of which are released under open-source licensing and many of which include small paid premium upgrade options that provide their creators with an income. These plugin and theme creators are the reason WordPress thrives. I built my first WordPress plugin in 2007, but it wasn’t until Elliot Condon created Advanced Custom Fields that I shifted from telling my clients that WordPress is “blog software” to telling them that we could use WordPress to build any site. This wasn’t an innovation that came from within Automattic – it came from a superfan.

Fifteen years after building my first plugin, I now own Understrap, a theme framework that was created by WordPress superfan Holger Koenemann and is used by more than 100,000 sites, including WordPress sites run by Facebook and Intel. You are reading MasterWP, which was created by WordPress superfans Alex Denning and Ben Gillbanks, who sold it to me eight months ago. Imagine a world where Elliot, Holger, Alex and Ben hadn’t been nurtured as WordPress superfans, and instead had been stymied at every turn.

On the high end, WordPress VIP customers are almost entirely using WordPress because they were advised to do so by a superfan – in this case their designers and developers, many of whom are also in the theme, plugin and client-service business. Some VIP customers are also longtime WordPress bloggers who joined as a result of the “WordPress = blogging” brand association – for example, TechCrunch was a blogging pioneer and eventually became a VIP customer.

I think it is implausible that TechCrunch would have used WordPress for a decade and converted to a high-paying enterprise WordPress VIP client without the brand value and add-on software created by third-party WordPress superfan developers. (I will briefly note here that WordPress VIP is technically a different business entity but is owned by Automattic.)

I would also posit that almost all the VIP customers have a similar story. It’s not like the are out there Googling “best CMS for a very large website.” WordPress is being recommended to them by experts who are often brand superfans (myself included), and then once they experience a certain level of growth or a certain level of need for higher-end security, they convert into VIP customers that are extremely valuable for Automattic.

How beloved brands collapse

I don’t think there’s a WordPress brand emergency that’s going to cause financial issues for Automattic tomorrow, but I absolutely think that the pattern of communication failures, attacks on peer companies, and dismissiveness of the superfans is a serious risk to the company over the next five years. If I were an executive or investor, I would be doing everything in my power to change this trajectory.

For a glimpse into the psychology around brand failures, I recommend the 1970 book Exit, Voice and Loyalty. (As Brian Coords and I have both discovered, there’s lots of ’70s writing that’s quite prescient about the modern internet era.) The author of Exit, Voice and Loyalty explains that when organizations fail, it is often because people exit – that is, employees quit or customers abandon the product – without providing a clear enough signal to the owners as to why they are dissatisfied. This is bad for the company because they don’t have enough information or enough time to adjust their behavior to improve satisfaction.

If the stakeholders (customers, employees and fans) instead use their voice, they can more clearly communicate to the organization leaders what’s wrong, and leaders can respond with changes that increase satisfaction. You can see a lot of this happening in WordPress (and of course at many other organizations) right now, particularly as a new generation of employees demands more of employers in terms of transparency, morality and ethics.

If your organization can strike the proper balance and allow stakeholders to use their voices to help you improve, you win. However, if you ignore the voices of your stakeholders, you put them in a very difficult position where they’re forced to choose between loyalty and exit, since their voice has become useless.

This is where I think a sad, slow collapse of the WordPress brand is a serious risk. People are clearly and consistently using their voices (and wisely choosing to attempt to change things for the better rather than exiting). They are often belittled and ignored. Some of them choose loyalty but are effectively silenced and intimidated, and thus can no longer provide leaders with useful information about how the organization can improve. Others choose exit (as, unfortunately, many excellent contributors have already done over the past few years) because they feel they aren’t getting through to leadership and have no desire to participate in an organization that treats them disrespectfully. This creates a vicious cycle where leadership doesn’t get useful feedback from any stakeholders, and thus the brand continuously degrades and is unable to correct course.

The leaders of Automattic and WordPress have outsize influence in how this process plays out for the company and the WordPress brand. However, WordPress superfans are not powerless, even if we are often ignored in the short term.

Because the superfans are the secret ingredient that makes the WordPress brand great, and because WordPress is open-source software that’s bigger than any one person, there are tons of ways that superfans can positively engage with and improve the brand, even if key people in power do not agree. We can continue to build positive communities and events (even if they are “unofficial”), and we can continue to build valuable software (even if we can’t get stats from WordPress on how it performs), and we can continue to welcome new voices to tech so they can build the next generation of open-source software.

That’s my mission, and everyone who’s excited for it is welcome to get involved. WordPress as a trademark may be in the hands of a small group of people – and they can make their own choices – but building a thriving open-source community is an idea that no one owns or controls, and something we can do together regardless of how individual participants behave.

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Rob is the CEO of HDC and the Publisher of MasterWP.

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