Show Me the Money!
Making a living with WordPress
“WordPress is everywhere. Now, how do I make money with WordPress?”
That is the prevailing question asked by anyone who has had a whiff of the content management system du jour. WordPress is so simple anyone can use it, but so prevalent that everyone wants a piece of the pie.
WordPress itself will never make you money. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t earn money with or through WordPress; you just have to realign your perspective and start thinking of WordPress for what it is: A web-publishing tool. Like any craft, it is not the tool that creates value. It is how you use it. The money comes with the work done with that tool.
Finding the best way to use WordPress to make money depends on who you are, what you like to do, what your skills are, and what goals you are aiming to reach. To that aim, here’s a primer on the paths to WordPress revenue.
WordPress as a Tool
WordPress is a tool. No more. No less. It is the gateway between the publisher, the database, and the visitor. Its popularity emerged from its simplicity and well designed and developed user interface. WordPress is like a hammer: You don’t need much training to get it to work the way it’s supposed to.
WordPress’ stated goal is to democratize publishing. It does so by removing the barrier between humans and databases. Anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can set up a fully functioning website and publish their own content with WordPress.
From this follows a maybe not so obvious conclusion: Since everyone who puts their minds to it can use WordPress, knowing how to use WordPress does not necessarily make a business. Yet so many people make good money either using or providing content or services related to WordPress. The key for a WordPress-based business is that the value has to come from somewhere else.
The Three Paths of WordPress Revenue
What sets those who make money, or even make a living with WordPress, apart, is how they use this tool. Rather than considering WordPress itself as the product, they use it to simplify access to their product/service or build services for the application.
Most individuals and businesses who make a living using WordPress follow one of three well defined paths: Using WordPress to publish content, selling content to support WordPress users, and selling the skills to build with WordPress.
Using WordPress as a Publishing Application
The obvious way of using WordPress to generate revenue is as a vehicle for content distribution or promotion. This is also the most accessible of the three paths, lying close to the heart of WordPress’ philosophy and intended usage.
It’s important to make a distinction between different types of published content.
The most basic types of published content are text, images, and other assorted media. This is something anyone can do with WordPress right out of the box, but this is also the least profitable way of using WordPress. Ask anyone who works in the publishing industry – whether it be in a newspaper, magazine, or for a book publisher – and they’ll tell you monetizing content is difficult and only getting more so.
The key for a WordPress-based business is that the value has to come from somewhere else.
The online self-publishing revolution (of which WordPress should receive significant credit) has trained the public to expect content to be freely available through the web. Therefore, the only two viable options are selling access to online materials through pay walls or monetizing the content through advertising. Both of these strategies require a large and dedicated reader base. Yet, neither is an effective revenue model until the publication is well established and hugely popular.
To put it plainly: Publishing content on the web and expecting that content to generate an income is, for most people, little more than an unrealistic dream.
A better way of publishing for-profit content is to use the site as a vehicle to drive attention to paid products or services – what the layperson would refer to as a “regular website” or an “ecommerce site.” Unlike traditional marketing materials where printing costs and distribution have to be considered, the volume of information that one can share on the web about a product or service is virtually limitless. By leveraging the main feature of WordPress – the blog post – a site can be used to start a conversation with potential and existing clients by sharing information, tips, and stories that relate to the product.
Gaining loyal customers is all about telling compelling stories that help them identify with the product. WordPress can be the ideal vehicle to tell these stories on the web.
Selling products and services to WordPress users
With WordPress’ successful expansion across the web, there is a large potential market for selling products and services related to the application. This includes hosting, 3rd party extensions, themes, plugins, and beyond. This is a broad path, accessible by anyone from individual designers and developers to large corporations.
To be successful on the product and service path, it is essential to have a realistic view of the relative value and marketability of what you are selling. For many theme and plugin developers, this path looks to have promise because of some great success stories. However, the theme and plugin marketplaces are not unlike app stores: Some apps become hugely popular and earn the creator millions while the vast majority of apps languish in obscurity, never making back the initial investment. Success at selling WordPress themes or plugins is no different. To be successful and bring in revenue, one must invest heavily in marketing and promotion to build a reputation. Developing the theme or plugin is merely a small part of the process.
One easy marketing option is to publish your theme or plugin through a marketplace. Here, again, the app analogy is warranted: The marketplace will take a share of your profits and has a vested interest in bringing in a large volume of products to increase sales. On some level the marketplace is actively working against you as a supplier since they benefit from increased competition. This can be hugely profitable if you are lucky enough to bubble to the top, but once again, most suppliers walk away with meager revenues.
The success stories in this economy are the WordPress hosting and service providers, who specialize in unique large-scale offerings with monthly or yearly subscription fees, and the theme and plugin marketplaces themselves. Next on the list are those who specialize in one plugin, one theme, or one meta-service (like a theme framework), and make it amazing. Great examples are GravityForms, WPTouch Pro, Advanced Custom Fields, and Easy Digital Downloads. What sets these developers apart is that they have identified a niche and specialized their service to meet the needs of this group of end-users.
On this path, the old music industry rule of “first, best, or different” is very much in play. Be the first and you’ll be well ahead of the competition. Be the best and all other options seem like a waste of money. Be different enough and you will stand out. Be all three and you have a recipe for prolonged success.
Selling WordPress Skills, a.k.a. Being a “WordPress Consultant”
The final path is arguably the most profitable and stable one: Selling the skills and services of building something with WordPress – what the layperson refers to as “working as a web designer.”
As the user base of WordPress evolves, so does the variety in services.
The services you can offer as a WordPress consultant (the term commonly used to refer to someone who offers services in the WordPress market) are varied and span far beyond the typical specializations of web design and web development. WordPress consultants offer specialized services in everything from content-and-marketing strategy to security auditing and implementations to enterprise builds, infrastructure architecture, multisite implementations, and beyond. As the user base of WordPress evolves, so does the variety in services.
If you want to make money with WordPress, being a WordPress consultant is the well-paved path. But it’s paved for a reason. While it may appear to be a way to make to a quick buck, it is, in reality, the path of the professional. This is a challenging climb that, at times, can appear vertical.
Offering a professional service built around WordPress – be that creating content strategy, improving SEO, strengthening security, or designing and developing a new site – is like offering any other type of professional service. The client turns to you for expertise and expects you to offer top-shelf products in return. Like a plumber or dentist or lawyer, you need to have solid technical skills and know-how. This is a real profession requiring legitimate training and skill.
WordPress Consultancy should be approached with the same gravitas as elevator repair or financial advice. The client trusts you with their business and expects you to know what is best for them and provide the best service possible. And just like with elevator repair or financial advice, if the service is not up to standard, the consequences for the client can be severe.
Putting it bluntly: Just because you know how to do things with WordPress does not mean you should sell that as a service. It can be a hard pill to swallow, but one the WordPress community needs in order to mature.
WordPress is not the Money Maker: You Are
The growing WordPress community provides new and exciting opportunities for hobbyists, business people, and companies alike to build new revenue streams for success. Whatever path you choose, always remember this: It is not WordPress that makes you money. It’s you. WordPress is just the tool. The true value of your offering is whatever you make with WordPress, something that should be divorced from the tool of choice.
As you explore the possible paths to revenue, let this be your litmus test: Can I do the same if WordPress was not part of the process? Can I replace WordPress with another CMS and still be successful? If the answer is ‘yes’, you likely have a viable business in mind. If the answer is ‘no,’ then carefully consider where the value lies, if it is within you or only in your connection to that tool. The tools of the carpenter have evolved over the years and will continue to evolve into the future. A saw can always be replaced. But knowing how to make the right cut at the right time makes her valuable. The same is true with you.