Understanding the free versus freemium business models for WP contact form plugins will help you make an informed decision about which contact form plugin is best for you.
Have you ever installed, activated, deactivated, and deleted a free WordPress plugin all within the timespan of an hour? If you have been working in WordPress for any length of time, you've probably tried out and discarded handfuls of free plugins. We all know there’s the good, the bad, and the downright ugly.
Often it’s not about good versus bad (or ugly). Sometimes the choice is between two well-maintained WP contact form plugins that are both free. Understanding different business models for plugins can translate into an understanding of how plugins will or won’t meet your needs.
Free contact form plugins: Free versus freemium
WordPress (WP) itself is free, open source software that supports a thriving community of both free and freemium (as well as premium-only) plugins. There is an entire developer plugin handbook on WordPress.org dedicated to instructions on developing WordPress plugins. (WordPress is separate from WordPress.com. See this WP Beginner article to understand the difference between the platforms.)
Examples of open source WP contact form plugins are Contact Form 7 (free), Formidable Forms (freemium), and Gravity Forms (premium). In this article we’ll look at the free and freemium models as they relate to contact forms.
Free WP contact form plugins are FREE
In fantasy, developers of free plugins are all independently wealthy. They dedicate their time to a free software out of love. In reality, developers who write free plugins simply have a different paradigm than those with paid plugins. They see their software not as the product, but as a catalyst that paves the way for other streams of revenue. (This is not to say that there isn't a labor-of-love aspect for paid plugin authors. Freemium and premium plugin authors can certainly labor out of love as well!)
Other streams of revenue can be things such as:
- selling ad placements on the plugin’s website,
- resume and reputation building,
- selling add-ons, documentation, or other related services.
Freemium contact form plugins have both a free and an enhanced monetized version
The freemium business model is based on pricing strategy. A basic free version of the software exists and an augmented version is available at a premium (for money).
In this business model, revenue comes from selling the additional features in the augmented version of the plugin. Thus, it's logical to see that premium-only plugins only have a commercialized product.
Free vs freemium plugins: Development
Free contact form plugins are often initially developed to meet the author's need and then given to the community. Extending functionality through further development is not often the highest priority for the author. This is because often the need it was created for has already been met.
In contrast, freemium plugins generate revenue by continuing to meet ongoing needs of users.
I was at a WordPress meetup recently where a user mentioned the responsive development of Formidable Forms. I thought: 'how true that is.' Formidable listens to feedback all day long in the support desk and responds to user feedback through it’s development cycle. Hence: responsive development!
WP contact form plugin development cycles
Free versus freemium could be likened to the difference between a non-profit and a for-profit corporation.
While much can be said about the differences between the two, one difference is the pace. For-profit corporations tend to have tighter deadlines for development of target business objectives. The bottom line depends upon it. The pace of meeting objectives as a nonprofit tends to be based on existing available resources instead.
- Free plugin development objectives and timelines are influenced by available resources.
- Freemium plugin development objectives and timelines are influenced by the possibility of generating additional revenue and pleasing the existing customer base. After all, happy customers are the best marketers a company can get.
This similarity between nonprofits and free plugins holds up graphically. Take a look at the WordPress.org screenshots from a free plugin (Contact Form 7) and a freemium plugin (Formidable Forms). We can instantly get a picture of each plugin's update release cycle. It appears that Contact Form 7 tends to put out an update every two months. Formidable Forms, on the other hand, shows an average of three updates per month.
Free vs freemium plugins: Support
Free model plugins have invariably fewer resources to invest in support. There are no funds to invest in a help desk. It’s often just the plugin author and his computer. You can bet that plugin author has other plugins in the fire. And many other support requests beside yours. Contact Form 7's author, Takauki Miyoshi, said this about his philosophy on supporting a free plugin in an interview with WP Tavern:
I receive 20 – 40 support requests every day... I look over them, but I don’t think I have to respond to all of them. I answer only when resolving the issue is surely important for the user and that can also help other users.
Free plugins up-rank support requests that impact the entire user base. Individual support requests are most likely not going to get support from the plugin author. In cases like these, the community can pitch in to help, but this is known to be very time consuming. Users can wait days, weeks or months for a fix from the community.
Freemium models, on the other hand, support users at both the free and the premium levels. Happy free users can translate into happy paid users. Happy paid users stay users, thus generating revenue.
Free vs freemium plugins: Usability
Authors of free plugins don’t have to be as concerned with the plugin usability. They're often concerned with usability for the initial purpose of the original user (the author). Future development of usability features is not a large priority.
Contact Form 7 vs Formidable Forms
In the case of Contact Form 7, for instance, it utilizes simple markup. Simple markup is not “simple” for anyone except developers. I know this because I am not a developer. My first experience with Contact Form 7 was spent studying the patterns of simple markup before I could begin building my first form.
The usability of this free contact form has not changed much in ten years since its inception in 2007. It's still based on simple markup.
Formidable Forms recognized the need for drag and drop features to enhance usability for a broader user base. My first experience as a non-developer with Formidable was not spent studying anything. I immediately began building my drag and drop form.
Free vs freemium plugins: Extensibility
Contact forms: they are the starting place for all forms on your site. Additional forms may be needed beyond a simple free contact form. What happens when your needs outgrow your plugin? When you want to save, export, or manipulate your data? Or when you want to customize a solution that your free contact form plugin doesn't provide?
To extend free plugins, you will need to add additional plugins. Unfortunately, you may end up installing several third party plugins maintained by separate authors. Each additional plugin installed and activated on your site has the potential to be the weak link. Ever had a theme conflict with a particular plugin? The more plugins you have activated, the more potential there is for conflicts or things to break.
With freemium plugins, extensibility is built in with deliberate intentionality. Outgrown the free version? Upgrade without having to create new forms.
The best free WordPress contact form is the one that's extensible
Just because one plugin is highly popular does not mean it is right for your needs. When comparing the value of two WP contact form plugins that cost "nothing", it comes down to extensibility. The best free WordPress contact form for you is going to be the plugin with a business model that meets your needs in features, development, support, usability, and extensibility.
Although a purely free contact form plugin begins as free, it may end up costing you down the road. There is a "cost" when you are unable to get the support you need. It "costs" if you have to install additional free plugins to extend the functionality of the first plugin. The cost is even more painful if you have to re-do all your forms because your free contact form plugin wasn't extensible.
With a freemium plugin, extensibility is built in. As you outgrow the functionality of the free version, it's painless to upgrade and extend the functionality of your current free contact form plugin.
Got a story about how these business models have affected your choice of a WordPress plugin? Let us know.