WordPress.com announced a new ‘Starter’ plan for its users on May 25 after significant backlash from many members of its community of users that a previous price revision had completely disregarded the interests of bloggers – by which I mean those writing to be read and discussed, and not primarily to make money. My own post on the matter blew up on Hacker News and caught the attention of WordPress.com CEO Dave Martin and Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg.
All of it was warranted: the previous price revision eliminated the ‘Personal’, ‘Premium’, ‘Business’ and ‘E-commerce’ plans in favour a single plan that combined all their features into a $15-a-month bundle that, WordPress.com added, users could only pay for 12 months at a time. WordPress.com’s rationale appeared to be that the ‘Pro’ plan was an almost perfect substitute for the ‘Business’ plan but was $10 cheaper.
But the company management, led by Martin, overlooked a few crucial details in the process: the pricing change was sudden and unannounced, and included an anathematic traffic limit on the free plan (which it removed shortly after); there were no plans between the free and ‘Pro’ plans, forcing even those indifferent towards making money – which was most bloggers including myself – to shell out $180 dollars a year just to add a custom domain; in exchange, these users received a trove of features most of which were useless (e.g. to sell products); and the free plan had its storage decreased by 66%.
I know “free” doesn’t really mean that when coming from the mouth of an internet platform or provider of internet-related services, but WordPress.com had set up exactly this expectation among its users: that they should never have to pay if they’re on the free plan. Look for Matt Mullenweg saying some version of “we want to democratise publishing on the web” (LMGTFY) and you’ll see what I mean. But it needs to acknowledge that what you get for free is less and less usable. I’m not saying don’t shrink the free plan; I’m saying stop pretending that it’s still just as good.
Members of the WordPress.com team should in effect stop claiming that they are rooting to improve access to any kind of publishing because the company’s actions on the pricing issue thus far haven’t been the actions of one with that vision. Instead, it should be more honest and recognise the conflict between increasing access to publishing tools and platforms on the one hand and its need to increase its profits on the other, and take cognisance of its apparent struggle to balance these priorities in its products and communicate the changes to its users.
This brings me back to the new ‘Starter’ plan. It costs $5 a month, also billable only yearly, and has two big changes from its most comparable legacy counterpart, the ‘Personal’ plan: it offers Google Analytics integration and it doesn’t remove ads. The former is confusing because almost none of the people who commented negatively on the WordPress.com post announcing the ‘Pro’ plan and the subsequent forum discussion mentioned wanting access to Google Analytics. The native analytics are pretty good and suffice for bloggers. The latter is more confusing because the ‘Personal’ plan cost $4 a month and removed ads. Why should I pay a dollar more every month and still put up with ads? Unless WordPress.com makes a lot of money through these ads (which I’ve been unable to ascertain with five minutes of googling). The confusion is exacerbated by the fact that most people who wanted a cheaper plan wanted the ability to add a custom domain and to remove ads.
(Interestingly, WordPress.com has many thousands of blogs lying dormant or unused, all of which also carry ads from WordPress’s WordAds network. If WordPress.com deleted these sites, would their hosting costs drop? Of course, doing so will raise questions about the importance of WordPress.com’s commitment to keeping the sites it hosts online forever.)
This said, I’m not very particular on this issue, especially after Dave Martin indicated to WPTavern that they need to make more money on subscriptions: “Finding the right balance between the value that we deliver to our customers and the price that we charge in exchange for that value is something that generally has to be iterated towards. We plan to do just that.” Costs are increasing, I understand.
But I’m still disappointed on three counts:
- Importance of monthly pricing – Martin told WPTavern that the company plans to “experiment” with monthly billing, suggesting that it’s no longer on par in terms of importance with the pricing itself. I would have liked to sign up for the ‘Pro’ plan by paying $15 a month to access the ability to add plugins, use premium themes and access the “advanced” SEO and social media tools. This would have been comparable in benefits to managed hosting by Flywheel or LightningBase (no affiliate links), with the bonus that the people who make WordPress also being in charge of my blog’s hosting. But a one-time expense of $180 (or the new India price, Rs 10,800) is not one I can bear, nor, judging by the comments on the ‘Pro’ plan announcement post, most other bloggers who are not in North America or Europe.
- India prices – The region-specific price for India for the ‘Starter’ plan is the same as that in NA/EU, and for the ‘Pro’ plan, it hasn’t come down by as much as would be required to make annual payments affordable. I don’t understand how/why the ‘Starter’ plan costs as much in India as it does in NA/EU when the erstwhile ‘Personal’ plan cost 1.5x lower in India – except perhaps if WordPress.com is eyeing big growth in India.
- Uncertainty and triumphalism – Martin responded to my post, wrote on the forum and told WPTavern that his team’s communication deserved to be called out. But the ‘Starter’ plan announcement on the WordPress.com blog, which has more than 90 million subscribers, is bereft of any admission of wrong-doing (which Martin spelt out in other fora); together with a triumphalist tone for the announcement itself, issues with the ‘Starter’ plan and no clear roadmap on what comes next (“this was the first of a couple of phases of changes”, Martin told WPTavern), the announcement wasn’t nearly as fulfilling as I expected it to be.
This brings me to the last and also the most grating issue for me: “we are listening”, both Martin and his support-staff colleagues repeatedly said on the forum, but as one comment pointed out, listening is a passive activity. Listening when people are shouting at you out of frustration, disappointment and confusion is the bare minimum and not a virtue. And it’s because I know WordPress.com can do better that I take the trouble to say that it needs to do better.
What we wanted, and want, from WordPress.com was/is a constant and intimate awareness of the (not-insubstantial number of) people who don’t give a damn about using WordPress.com to make money but give a big damn about using it to publish posts for the world to read and talk about. We need to know whether WordPress.com intends to maintain this awareness going ahead, and whether it will listen to its bloggers first – as the least common denominators – the next time a big change is around the corner.
(A similar thing appears to have happened with the proposal of the ‘WordPress performance team’ to make WebP the default image type on hosted sites.)