For a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) business wanting to grow, the WordPress ecosystem, now powering more than 43%¹ of the web, offers more opportunity than ever. Its decentralized nature² presents a challenge, especially for those new to the ecosystem. It’s a challenge, though, readily solved through partnerships, presence, and contribution.
Opportunities for Growth
For a SaaS business serving customers with almost any kind of web presence, WordPress will come up sooner or later. Wix, for example, currently serves 2% of the CMS ecosystem³, and as of this writing enjoys a $4 billion dollar market cap. WordPress, by contrast, is more than 15 times larger and still growing.
WooCommerce, an ecosystem plugin for WordPress, has more marketshare than Shopify, a company with a $45 billion dollar market cap.
In general, I expect at least 30% of the customer base of a web connected SaaS to be using WordPress and it’s often more.
Accordingly, I see two clear opportunities for growth:
- Serve existing customers better – A significant portion of your customers are already on WordPress, and they’re likely using WordPress more than any other CMS. By focusing on WordPress with a good integration, you can create a better experience for the customers you’ve already won.
- Reach new customers – The WordPress ecosystem represents the largest addressable market on the web. While its decentralized nature presents barriers for traditional growth strategies, those who work through the barriers can reach and retain new customers and do so efficiently and effectively.
For a SaaS considering an investment for growth in the WordPress ecosystem, there are three benefits to consider when evaluating ROI:
- Reducing Cost-of-Acquisition – WordPress’ decentralized nature, while more challenging to navigate upfront, is undervalued and offers more efficient paths to customer acquisition.
- Reducing Churn – For a SaaS with a large portion of their customers on WordPress, a strong WordPress integration improves the user experience, offers increased opportunity for value add, and, for most, has a positive impact on reducing churn.
- Increasing Lifetime Value – A WordPress integration combined with value-aligned partnerships within the ecosystem, can create wins for all involved and increase the lifetime value of each customer.
Obstacles to Growth
So what’s the catch? Because of its decentralized nature, gaining traction in the WordPress ecosystem is difficult.
For a SaaS serving the ecommerce space, for example, investing in WooCommerce is a logical step. You have access to a larger addressable market with more opportunity for positive ROI without Shopify taking their cut, imposing restrictions, or building your functionality directly into the product.
The trouble, though, is gaining access to the WooCommerce ecosystem. WooCommerce the business, a former employer of mine, does good work. They have a partnership program, a great marketing team, and the resources of Automattic (their parent company) available to them. With all that, though, they have direct influence over less than 20% of the WooCommerce ecosystem.
The rest is divided amongst hosting providers like GoDaddy, Hostinger, Bluehost, WP Engine, Dreamhost, etc., and the product companies building solutions for WooCommerce.
Today, then, for a SaaS wanting to tap into the WooCommerce ecosystem, they need to work with both WooCommerce the business, the hosting companies, and product companies.
And the same is further true for WordPress broadly. To successfully gain marketshare in today’s environment, you have to work through multiple channels.
SaaS Growth Strategy
So how does a SaaS grow in the WordPress ecosystem? There are two key steps:
- Create a good WordPress integration
- Increase awareness of your offering
Building The Foundation
For a SaaS new to WordPress, creating a WordPress integration can be daunting. While discussing the ins and outs of a good integration is outside the scope of this piece, I created a tool called OpenRank that may be a helpful starting point.
From there, the easiest shortcut is to work with a freelancer or agency who knows WordPress well who can either do it for you or support your engineering team. If you’re looking for a recommendation on the agency side, WordPress VIP’s agency partners is a good starting point. For freelancers, try Codeable.
The objective is to have an integration that brings the value of your SaaS to your current customers on WordPress in a way that follows best practices and feels “native”. With that, you’re ready to start getting the word out.
In a decentralized ecosystem, the key challenge you’ll face, even with a great integration, is that folks don’t know you exist. Adding your plugin to the official repository, for instance, is no guarantee you’ll get new installs.
That, then, is where the work comes in. To get the word out, there are three areas of focus:
- Partnerships – Creating win-win relationships with hosting providers and product creators that serve the same audience.
- Presence – Showing up at community events, participating in our online spaces, and getting coverage, organic and paid, across WordPress media.
- Contribution – Participating in initiatives like Five for the Future, getting involved in Make WordPress, then leveraging your contributions to support your partnerships and presence.
Let’s take a look at each.
Growing awareness through partnerships
Partnerships are the heart of successful growth in the WordPress ecosystem. Between hosting companies, product companies, and service providers (freelancers and agencies), there are tens of thousands of potential partners you could work with to increase awareness of your SaaS.
Filter through potential partners by evaluating:
- Audience Alignment – Prioritize partners serving the same types of customers as you. You’ll be better off working with a network of smaller partners that serve the same audience than a partner with a large audience where there isn’t good alignment.
- Value Alignment – Prioritize partners offering complimentary value to the type of customer you’re serving. If you’re a B2B focused SaaS, for instance, partnering with B2B focused product companies and skewing towards mid-market to enterprise hosts is going to offer a better value alignment compared to partners focused on end-users.
- Personal Connections – Favor partnerships where you have a personal connection. For all its size, relationships are still the key currency in WordPress. Don’t have any yet? Make some, we’re a welcoming community.
As you prioritize and evaluate opportunities, keep in mind that they probably won’t look like a typical SaaS partnership. You’re less likely to have clear analytics around engagement and more “people” work will be required to align and educate within each other’s organizations.
As Nate Stewart, VP of Platform Strategy at BigCommerce put it, “There is a certain level of trust and ‘wait and see’ analytics that can be uncomfortable for SaaS leadership.”
It’s work worth doing, though, and there’s never been a better time.
For more on the topic here are some additional resources:
- Growing through Partnerships – A talk I gave at WordCamp Europe 2022 and a related partnerships framework I created.
- Deciding Between Build, Buy, and Partner – A guide for SaaS leadership written by Bernhard Friedrichs to help you navigate the build, buy, or partner decision.
Growing awareness through presence
Presence is about stepping into and participating in the WordPress community. There’s something unique and charming, organic and chaotic, about our open source world and the position that WordPress holds as an Operating System for the Open Web.
You can increase awareness of your SaaS by joining us and being present within the ecosystem. There are three areas of focus:
- Events – There are over 1,000 meetups, both in-person and virtual, around the world and dozens of WordCamps coming up. Never been? Check out my newcomer’s guide to WordCamps and start attending.
- Communities – Join, observe, and participate in our community spaces. Look for relevant LinkedIn and Facebook Groups and join spaces like the WordPress.org Slack, The WP Minute and Post Status.
- Media – Read and engage with WordPress media (WP Tavern, Do the Woo, and Master WP are good places to start), look for opportunities to share stories of interest, and seek out sponsorship opportunities.
My overall guidance here is that compared to other ecosystems, investments of time and resources into cultivating presence offers a strong ROI, especially in support of your partnership efforts.
Growing awareness through contribution
Last but not least, contribution is the most underrated way to grow awareness in WordPress. It can take a number of different forms. Examples include:
- Direct Involvement – Dedicate time and energy from your team into high impact areas of the project, focused especially on multiplying efforts. Look for ways where folks on your team with specific areas of expertise and experience could help empower and support dozens of other contributors. Track your contributions through Five for the Future.
- Sponsorship – There are thousands of individuals who dedicate time to the project and many would do more if they had the opportunity. Look for individuals or groups you can sponsor who can contribute on behalf of your organization.
- Evangelism – The size, impact, and value of the WordPress ecosystem is an unintentionally well-kept secret. Help get the word out, encouraging other SaaS businesses to do the same, making WordPress even better.
Investing intentionally and consistently in contribution, at any scale, offers a range of inherent values. In the context of helping your SaaS grow, though, your contributions offer you a story to tell that adds value to the work you’re doing to cultivate presence and to your work in creating partnerships.
The WordPress ecosystem offers SaaS businesses a great, untapped opportunity for growth. The key is to start with a solid foundation and then build on that through creating partnerships, cultivating presence, and contribution. Then, take the input you receive, improve your product, and do it again.
Have questions or want help? Contact me.
Special thanks to Anna Maria Radu, Kevin Ohashi, and Nate Stewart for their early feedback.
- W3 Tech is the source for the 43%. Another good source for overall data is BuiltWith.com.
- For more on decentralization in the WordPress ecosystem, see the benefits and tradeoffs of decentralization.
- This year’s CMS chapter of the Web Almanac, authorized by yours truly, offers a detailed breakdown by CMS.