Consumer Alert: Tricky and Pushy Marketing In The WordPress Economy

The marketing tactics being used in the Wordpress economy have evolved… and not all of it is good. Is the space being taken over by greed and too much centralization?

I’ve been working with WordPress for many years now. I’ve watched the space develop and I know some of the players in it. Over those years, I’ve watched certain trends grow which I find concerning.

As I discussed in my post about WordPress GPL and the so-called “GPL Clubs”, WordPress is inherently free and open source. And being that it uses the GPL software license, that means that all themes and plugins built to run inherently inside of WordPress are considered add-ons and are subject to GPL.

The point there is just that WordPress was birthed out of the open source movement. It is based on the idea that information should be free. That doesn’t mean that charging money for things is bad. There is plenty of room for monetization in the Wordpress space.

So, this post is in NO way a rant about plugins costing money. I get it. No problem. But…

There is a concerning trend, in my opinion. And those trends are:

  • Increased centralization through acquisitions.
  • Aggressive and pushy marketing
  • Abuse of the Wordpress dashboard with too many ads

I’m not under any illusions that my post here is going to change anything. But, I at least want to point it out, make it clear where I stand, and be sure users of Wordpress are educated about the space.

I think greed is slowly taking over the WordPress space.

And yes, I’m going to name names.

Forms of Tricky Marketing To Watch For

We’ve seen some of the tactics of traditional internet marketing entering the WordPress space. And again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with marketing. I want to be clear about that. It is literally in the name of this site! But… some tactics are just shady.

#1 – Never-ending Sales

I’ve seen quite a few plugins that are sold with a “special offer” and a countdown timer until that deal supposedly expires.

Problem is, they never expire. You can go back the next day and the same countdown appears to have just started over.

Ironically, a lot of these ribbon bars with the countdowns looked the same and were using OptinMonster. That’s because the company behind OptinMonster (Awesome Motive) is one of the worst offenders.

As of this writing, it looks like the company might have stopped running those ribbon ads in the site header. Perhaps they got called out for it too much. 🙂 They used to do that across most all of their products. I considered it lying because it was anything but a “limited time deal”. Once that 4-hour countdown expires, nothing changed. Refresh and it just started again.

I know scarcity and urgency work. It is marketing 101 to increase conversions. But, when you fake it and do it for so long, people catch on.

#2 – Intro Pricing, Then Full-Price Renewals

This is when they hook you in with introductory pricing and then future rebills will be at full price. To be clear, there’s nothing unethical about this as long as it is made clear that that’s what is happening.

The problem is, many companies don’t make it clear.

Once again, let’s look at Awesome Motive. They might have gotten rid of their fake countdowns (for now), but let’s look at the pricing page for another of their plugins: TrustPulse.

Now when you look at that, it looks like they’re offering a discount. The normal price is crossed out in red as if it won’t apply. But, next to the amount of savings is a tiny little asterisk. Scroll way down the page and you see “Special introductory pricing, all renewals are at full price. Annual purchases only.

That’s a wee bit tricky, is it not?

You look across pretty much every plugin Awesome Motive owns and they do the same thing. SeedProd, TrustPulse, WP Forms, RafflePress, and the list goes on.

Web hosts do this all the time, too. Take a look at SiteGround’s pricing:

It is positioned as a discount, however it says in little text that these special prices only apply to the first bill. After that, the price goes up dramatically.

When companies make it visibly difficult to see that the price is going to bump up like that, I think it is shady. They’re technically telling you so they are allowed to do it. But, they are depending on people to sign up and get ingrained into the software so deep that it would be a pain to switch when renewal time comes.

This is one of the reasons I like Cloudways. For one, they’re a great host and I use them personally. But, they also don’t screw around with pricing gimmicks. What you start paying is what you pay until you cancel.

#3 – Product Recommendations With Conflicts of Interest

When you see blogs that make product recommendations and don’t disclose a conflict of interest, that’s not great. Even against FTC rules, depending on how it is done.

But, once again, we have to talk about Awesome Motive. This company also owns WP Beginner. WP Beginner has been around for years and has produced great Wordpress tutorials for a long time. And they’re clearly good at the SEO game.

However, the site has turned into a massive SEO play and perpetuating marketing machine for their own plugins mostly without clearly disclosing that they own it. They often create tutorials where the user-friendly option is their own plugin. Or list posts talking about the best Wordpress plugins that do certain things… and it just so happens to own or have an investment interest in almost everything on the list.

From a content marketing perspective, this setup is something to drool over. Having an asset like WPBeginner to promote software is something most other Wordpress developers wish they had. However, the site used to be much more open about just showing people how to do things with Wordpress without as much of a consideration. Now, almost every post they do is done as a tie-in to one of the plugins in their own catalog. In most every case, it would take some digging for the end user to realize it is all the same company because it isn’t overtly stated in the blog post.

Look, this very site is called Blog Marketing Academy. I know all about using a blog to market your own products and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. But, it just needs to be clear.

Most of the time, developers aren’t very good at marketing and content. In the case of Awesome Motive, they know how to do it all. I respect the hell out of it, actually. But, I do think there’s a disservice to the community when just common “how to” questions people search for end up being funneled into one company’s products without it being crystal clear that they have a vested interest in recommending that particular solution.

Abuse Of WordPress Notifications And Ads Appearing In WordPress Admin

We’ve all seen the product promotions inside of WordPress. The ads inside the plugins. The pushy notifications that clutter up the admin panel to push license upgrades.

The other day, I logged into a client site who was using Easy Digital Downloads. The new version 6.0. And when I went to an order screen, this box took up a colossal amount of screen real estate:

An ad for MonsterInsights. Inside of Easy Digital Downloads. This client also had the free version of MonsterInsights installed, so I’m sure EDD was changed to detect that and unleash the ads.

And yes, in case you’re wondering, Awesome Motive now owns EDD, too. They acquired Sandhills. So, now they’re busy updating the code of these great plugins and are building in a bunch of promotions like this one.

MonsterInsights is one of the worst. If you don’t buy everything they offer, then activating MonsterInsights in your site is basically like installing a billboard plugin. They will harass you with ads constantly.

I’ve also seen instances of web hosts using their own plugin to alter the behavior of WordPress to their favor. For instance, if you use Siteground and install WordPress, they now install their Siteground Central plugin by default. This makes several changes to the default UI of Wordpress admin, but one of them is to alter the interface for adding plugins.

Unsurprisingly, the “Must Have” plugins have an awful lot of Awesome Motive plugins such as WP Forms, MonsterInsights and OptinMonster. Clearly there’s a partnership there of some kind… only made more official with Siteground’s recent announcement of managed hosting specifically for Easy Digital Downloads (an Awesome Motive product).

Clearly, you can just disable Siteground Central and get rid of all that. But, it is still another case of altering the insides of WordPress in order to promote paid products.

And in terms of WordPress notifications, WordPress really needs to re-design how notifications are handled. They need to be hidden in a dropdown. Right now, notifications take over the top of the user interface inside of WordPress admin.

And with so many companies using those notifications to pimp their wares and ask for reviews, these notifications have become abusive. I’ve seen so many instances where there are so many damn notifications cluttering the top of the screen that all the actual functionality is pushed down enough to need to scroll to it. It is ridiculous.

Centralization In The WordPress Space And The Problem With Acquisitions

I get it. Companies buy other companies sometimes. They acquire assets in order to expand. I get it and there’s nothing wrong with it.

However, I am concerned that some of the top plugins and themes being used out there these days are coming under too few umbrellas.

Once again, I’m going to address Awesome Motive because they’re perhaps the biggest here. It has happened many times now where I’ve watched a great plugin get acquired by Awesome Motive and then slowly…. ruined. Ruined because of the introduction of aggressive cross-promotion, ads, and the removal of features until you pay to get them back.

Easy Digital Downloads is a recent example. Now that it has been acquired, cross-promotions are starting to show up. Word is they’re doing the same to AffiliateWP.

I remember when they acquired an open source project plugin that would integrate Google Analytics stats into your WordPress admin on the dashboard. It was a handy little plugin. Well, it was purchased by ExactMetrics and they proceeded to ruin the plugin by turning it into one huge promotion for ExactMetrics. They purchased that plugin simply to get rid of a competitor. And if you think ExactMetrics is some separate company, then think again. It is part of MonsterInsights, owned by Awesome Motive.

Awesome Motive has done this so many times now they make me nervous. Now when I see other acquisitions in the WordPress space, I just wince at what could happen.

Learndash was recently acquired by Liquid Web. Are they going to screw it up?

Newfound Digital (formerly EIG, known for web hosting) acquired Yoast. Are they going to somehow screw up things like Yoast SEO?

WP Engine purchased Delicious Brains, creators of Advanced Custom Fields, WP Migrate and others.

Seeing web hosts buy WordPress plugins and/or services is always a little concerning because you just don’t know what they’re going to do with it. Are they going to fold it into their hosting and make it exclusive? Build a bunch of cross-sells into their plugin code?

I think the WordPress space has thrived because of a fast-growing ecosystem of developers creating a lot of competing options for themes and plugins. That competition is a great thing. Plus, let’s not forget that the spirit of open source that birthed this space to begin with.

Watching great plugins fall into the hands of a short list of companies with commercial interest is concerning because I think it has the potential of going in the opposite direction of what made Wordpress what it is.

And when a company plays the game like Awesome Motive does, that’s even more concerning.

My Thoughts On These Companies

I want to be clear…

I have a lot of respect for the business acumen of Syed Balkhi, the founder of Awesome Motive. He’s a super nice guy and we hung out on many occasions at conferences back in the day. I remember complementing him because WPBeginner showed up in searches all the damn time. 🙂 As an entrepreneur, the dude is a machine.

I remember the early days of OptinMonster when they officially began transitioning the tool from 100% WordPress to a SaaS model where the plugin is merely a bridge. The idea there was to simplify things so as not to be so subjected to the various complexities of a changing WordPress environment. It also just so happens to exempt him from the GPL, tho. 😉

Since that time, his company has gone on to acquire a lot of other plugins and has become one of the biggest players in the WordPress space. I praise his success and have nothing but respect for all of that.

My only concern is that I think the marketing is too aggressive. There’s a reason this one company comes up so often when it comes to pushy tactics in the WordPress space. It has developed a reputation. And combine that with the seemingly constant acquisitions of great plugins, it is concerning.

I don’t personally use any plugins from this company for these reasons. I don’t recommend any of them, either. Many of them are solid plugins, to be clear. They do good work. 🙂 But, if I’m not a fan of their tactics, I can’t promote that to my clients. There are alternatives that are often better, too.

Not everybody selling plugins in this space acts in this way.

Adam Preiser is developing his own suite of products in this space. For instance, CartFlows is a great funnel builder and I use it myself. But, his pricing page is very clear with no gimmicks at all. Presto Player’s pricing does need an asterisk, tho, to make it clear those are intro prices and not a sale. 😉 We’ll see how things come together for SureCart, SureMember and others.

WPManageNinja makes some of my favorite plugins. Their pricing is straightforward. They do the occasional sale – which is great! – but there’s no tricks and their plugins are not spewing any aggressive cross-promotions into their user interfaces.

And lastly, there’s just the plethora of companies out there that abuse the notifications in WordPress admin for promotional purposes. Ironically, one of the worst offenders is Automattic itself (the company behind Wordpress). JetPack is incredibly aggressive with taking over the user interface. WooCommerce also has been known to insert too many notices into the interface.

So, when even the company behind WordPress itself is engaging in this kind of activity, where does that leave us?

Where Does This Leave Us? What About The Future of WordPress?

Let me leave off with a few final thoughts…

WordPress grew and thrived as a result of it’s open source nature and that spirit of community and collaboration. Over the course of the last few years, that spirit is being replaced with… greed.

Now, I am a raving capitalist. And I’m a believer in free markets. I want to make money as much as the next person. However, when it is done at the expense of the end user, that’s when things suffer. And clearly, some of what’s happening here is not done in the interest of the user community, but solely in the interest of increasing sales and dominating the space.

Centralization of the WordPress space into the hands of a few large companies is not healthy.

I’m not exactly sure what this means for the future of WordPress.

Perhaps this is all just part of the natural evolution of the space. It will always exist and we have to see the good and the bad at the same time.

In my mind, I think it is just good to openly discuss it and point it out. It isn’t comfortable sometimes. And I definitely don’t like calling anybody out here. But, I also don’t think this topic of aggressive marketing tactics and the GPL should be avoided.

Only by open communication and free flow of information can a balance remain in place. And I think users of WordPress should simply be aware of it all and then make decisions that are right for them.

Hence this post. 🙂 For whatever it is worth.

UPDATE: Changed all instances of “Wordpress” to “WordPress”. Apparently, some people really care about that. 😉

Also, I recommend you check out Mark’s article on WP Mayor on this same topic: Is Deceptive Marketing Ruining WordPress’ Reputation? I linked to his article in The Edge in the “Tech Talk” section because I think this is a good matter to be aware of. Just makes sense to link to him here, too, considering his article helped spark the conversation. He points out some issues in WP news coverage and WordPress.org that I didn’t go into.

4 Comments

  1. I still remember when Adobe acquired the company Macromedia several years ago (the founders of Flash and Dreamweaver). It was a big deal back then. To this day I can still remember reading a news release that nothing was changing and Macromedia would continue operating as they were…same employees, same structure…just governed by Adobe. Fast forward to today…the term Macromedia doesn’t exist. Flash pretty much died, but now we have Adobe Dreamweaver, Adobe Animate, and Adobe Character Animator. But yeah, there’s totally some writing on the wall about how some WordPress plugins might end up. Not sure what or how…but something is a brewin’.

  2. YES! I agree with everything in this post. These are the daily frustrations of WordPress users. While the more experienced users are aware of it, it’s very easy for the uninitiated to get caught out.

    For the constant WordPress notifications, ads and promos, I use the ‘Hide Admin Notices’ plugin to keep my dashboard uncluttered.

    Keep up the great work David. I appreciate your newsletter each week, in particular the tech talk..

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