How I made $80,000 with a single WordPress plugin

337/365: The Big MoneyThe journey described here is meant to be a learning and motivational tool, hopefully opening horizons to what is possible.

SEO Smart Links is a WordPress SEO plugin that helps people enhance their interlinking structure without too much hassle. The idea behind it is since Google and other search engines heavily attribute internal links and the structure of the site, it made sense to attempt to automatize the process, especially if your site is already established and it would be very time consuming to go back to every post and add these links manually. Along the way I added many other features like support for affiliate links, custom keywords, caching etc.

It all begun in 2008 when I first released the free version of the plugin. The plugin proceeded to become very popular and over the course of next two years reached more than 200,000 downloads, with a large number of reviews over the Internet including those at premier SEO industry locations like Search Engine Journal and others.

With the increasing plugin popularity one thing was inevitable – increased number of support and feature requests. Mind you, this was just one out of around 20 free plugins I developed by then, so the amount of day-to-day work just to respond to user requests was ridiculously big, greatly exceeding the amount of my free time. The free plugin also had some bugs due to the poor architecture chosen in the beginning so I knew I had to completely rewrite it.

I decided I will do that, but this time I will offer it as a paid product, and together with that offer rock-solid support as well as money back guarantee. I really had no other plans at that moment nor did I base my future income on the success of this project.

I released the premium plugin in December 2010. I did not know how will I promote it back then, so I organized a Twitter competition for three licenses and announced the winners in a nice video recorded drawing.

This gave the launch some wings and the plugin sales started.

During this time I also tried couple of ways of paid promotion including buying banner ads, advertising on warrior forum, even a review by the famous John Chow. None of it worked, it was a waste of money. I think one of the reasons it failed is that users visiting these places were used to the cheap products that sold them dreams. Mine was not cheap and certainly did not make any promises it can not fulfill. I also did not have (and still don’t have) a typical sales page to which users are accustomed and to which I grew allergic over the time.

I set the lowest price to be $79 for the Personal edition of the plugin which you can use on one website. Professional edition allows you to install it on all your websites and costs $149. The Business edition has the most features, and it also allows you to install it on your client’s site. It costs $299. The relatively high price (compared to average price of premium WordPress plugins) was also the indication of the tremendous effort put into creating the plugin, not just development but also research and my own SEO consulting experience accumulated over the years in the industry.

To date it sold 508 copies (about one a day on average) and this was enough to earn me just over $82,000 USD.

What do you think where did the most money come from – Personal, Professional or Business version?

If you thought the cheapest you would be wrong.

Note: the difference in totals here is due to some people upgrading between versions

All versions sold about equal number of copies, and because the Business version was 4 times as expensive it yielded as much more revenue than the Personal edition.  That was a surprising fact, one I would have never guessed beforehand.

So if traditional marketing channels didn’t work – what did?

As you can see from the sales reports affiliates contributed to about 16% of all sales. Two or three biggest affiliates split between them  $6,000 USD. Looking back I should have promoted the plugin’s affiliate program more as it is a great way to gain sales and it’s also great for affiliates as I gave them a very nice 40% commission on all sales.

However bulk of the sales came from links in my own plugins. Since I had so many popular WordPress plugins I decided that it would be a good idea to include the link with the information about SEO Smart Links Premium to the Settings page of these plugins. These links would then be seen by WordPress users who are presumably happily using my other plugins and would potentially be interested in owning a premium SEO plugin. That meant very targeted “advertising” which resulted in a steady stream of sales.

This also means that all these free plugins I gave the community were now working for me. I often hear plugin developers say that free plugins are a waste of time, but in my example they were exactly the channel that generated the most leads.

Over the time I played with the idea of releasing the premium version of two other plugins, namely Smart Youtube and SEO Friendly Images.

Smart Youtube  is insanely popular WordPress plugin with over 1.2 million downloads to date. I created the PRO version which included large number of new features and additions which took several months to develop but then decided to keep it free.  The benefit of course is that the plugin became even more popular, getting 200,000 new downloads in just few months.

I still plan to launch the premium version of SEO Friendly Images as I created some very useful features that automatically adhere to the latest Google Image posting guidelines. I reckon that with two premium plugins one could easily have a nice living with about $4,000-$8,000 USD monthly in revenue from plugin sales alone.

I guess the best thing about having this kind of business is that once the plugin is created, everything is running more or less on auto-pilot.

Today I am fortunate to be working on a much bigger project that both earns for my living, but does so for 15 more people too and in the process helps thousands of users save their precious time. I am talking about ManageWP and I will leave the story about it for some other time.

Comments and questions welcome.


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