If you build it, they may come – but not in as great a number as they would otherwise.
I have seen WordPress developers reach as many as 10,000 active installations without spending a single minute on dime marketing. However, on every occasion that I hear such a story, I pause to wonder: how big would this theme or plugin be if the developer behind it thought about distribution?
Maybe their product spawns a company and they become the next YITH or Yoast, toasting after a major acquisition not thought possible in their wildest dreams.
The first hurdle to overcome as a developer is the fallacy that your product is tainted by even the slightest speck of marketing, as if it was a glass of unadulterated, pure spring water sourced from the streams of Mount Olympus.
The WordPress ecosystem is not the plains of Dion – it’s more like the dregs of Romulus. More and more, it is guaranteed that you will face competition from the optimates, the big guys who come in the form of hosting providers, prolific WordPress development companies, super plugins, site builders, etc.
The best themes and plugins don’t always win in the face of superior brands and warchests. In fact, the more disillusioned among us would say that they rarely do these days.
The good news is that the best themes and plugins can win, even if their developers are unknown and resource-constrained. But it all begins by bringing the horse to water. After that, if the product is good enough, the horse will drink. If it does not drink, there is more development to do.
Set Up a Website
First thing’s first: you need a website of your own. This is true even if your product is listed on the WordPress repository (if free), a marketplace like Envato, AppSumo, etc. (if premium), or the WooCommerce marketplace (whether free or premium).
You need as wide a platform as possible to broadcast your message effectively. A website provides you with such a platform, upon which you can assemble a demo, a blog, and documentation for maximal efficacy. This step is foundational for the other initiatives described below, which are either impossible or more difficult to execute without a website.
Start Thinking About SEO and SEM (Mostly the Former)
Needless to say, as soon as you have a website, you want it to gain as much exposure as possible. Much has changed about Google’s search-rank algorithms over the years, but the essence of it has not. The essence remains backlinks.
You are more likely to rank for desired keywords if there are many websites, preferably with high domain authority (search-rank score), that link to your website while using those same keywords. Optimizing your search-rank score, and thereby ensuring you rank as close to the top as possible for desired keywords, takes time. It may be months before you see the fruits of your labor.
You can jump-start the process with Google Ads, which allows you to rank at the very top of the first page, but at that point you are stepping out of the world of search engine optimization and into the world of search engine management.
It is an expensive world with inconsistent, often disappointing returns. You are best served spending most of your budget on the generation of backlinks, which is on the whole a more prudent, sustainable, and long-term strategy.
That being said, spending a moderate portion of your budget on search engine management may not be a bad idea if you are still figuring out keywords, phrases, and copy for your product. These can be treated as variables of interest in what are effectively randomized controlled trials (individual Google Ad campaigns). But again, moderation is key.
Doubling Down on SEO: Generating Backlinks
There is no shortage of WordPress blogs accepting guest posts. These blogs are obviously prime real estate. It is a good idea to make a roundup of such blogs and begin contacting them right away.
Some of these blogs are simply interested in generating as much content as possible and so will let you write a blog post for free. However, these outlets are usually in the same boat as you, suffering from low domain authority, and therefore not worth pursuing excessively. Something is better than nothing, especially if it’s free, but the outlets you really want to go after will usually charge a fee.
Be careful not to drain your budget on websites asking for fees despite lacking the domain authority and viewership to justify them. Tools such as Similarweb and Ubersuggest (the latter of which lets you do much more than just that, effectively functioning as an all-in-one SEO tool) will keep you safe.
Furthermore, there are quite a few WordPress outlets that offer product reviews, an even greater proportion of which are locked behind a paywall. Expect the payoff on these to be good, though. The person or team running the blog knows their audience and, in this case, they are the ones writing it.
Besides guest blog posts and product reviews, there are a great abundance of listicles, many of which you might be surprised to find out are also usually bought and paid for.
Do not feel guilty for buying your place in the listicle, that’s just the name of the game. Instead, fulfill your side of the bargain honorably: do your best to develop a product that merits its position in the list.
The great thing about all these outlets is that they also often have a newsletter. Ensure your guest post, product review, or listicle is being featured there. There are some newsletters that have little or no blog presence, but this is rarer. Everyone “doing it right” is upselling one thing or another, be it a plugin or a media outlet.
Ideally, once you have taken the steps described above, you will start to amass an install base and earn press organically.
I do not deny that the universe conspires to grant a select few developers a lucky break, allowing them to never really have to worry about distribution. I am only saying that such a phenomenon is exceedingly and increasingly rare and, furthermore, that their products are not living up to their full potential.
If you truly care about the product that you have built and you believe it will make the WordPress ecosystem a better place, then you will not leave the matter to chance.