One month on: does “pay what you want” work for WordPress themes?

Ever since I launched Empty Spaces last month as a free/pay-what-you-want theme, I’ve been asked repeatedly whether people are actually paying when they can just download the theme for free, and as an extension of that, whether “pay-what-you-want” actually works.

In this post I’m going to answer those two questions… or at least try to. Let’s get going.

So has anyone actually paid for your free theme?

Yes! I’ll run through some of the key data points from the first 26 days of Empty Spaces’ availability:

  • Total downloads: 100.
  • Paid downloads: 6.
  • Range of amount paid: £1 to £10.
  • Total revenue: £41.
  • Most frequent price paid: £10.
  • Total views of the download page: 300.
  • And thus — conversion rate of visitors:downloads: 33%.

None of that is particularly ground-breaking stuff, but it’s certainly enough data to start drawing some conclusions. The first thing to notice is the conversion rate of visitors:downloads is very, very high indeed. One third of all people who came to the download page then went on to download the theme.

That’s huge.

A quick Google confirms my suspicions that even for free products, a conversion rate of around 5-15% is about normal. So why is the conversion rate so high? There’s a three part answer to this: first, I have no doubts that the system I’m using to manage sales/downloads, Gumroad, is responsible for a huge chunk of those downloads. It’s just an absolute pleasure to use. I’ve someone email me to tell me how much he enjoyed downloading the theme. That’s awesome.

To see why, head over to the Empty Spaces page on Shout and hit download. Gumroad overlays a super-simple secure download form, explaining what the product is and what you get if you purchase. Clicking “I want this” moves the overlay on to another screen, where you’re invited to input your email and name your price. If you enter nil as your price, you’re not asked for any card details and you can download straight away.

If you enter anything above zero, you’re asked for only the card detail needed to complete the purchase — just your card details and not pages of forms asking for your address, the name of your cat or who your best friend was in primary school. You can then download the theme immediately.

Gumroad is an absolutely brilliant payment system and I certainly attribute in part the conversion rate to Gumroad’s simplicity and ease-of-use.

Part two to the answer is the price… obviously. With the theme being free, if you’re not sure about it, there’s zero opportunity cost to just downloading it, and I suspect a lot of people have done just that. Have people downloaded it, tried it out, liked it and then come back to pay for it? No, not as far as I can tell.

And finally, part three: the figure I’ve quoted isn’t entirely accurate as it’s counting a mix of direct referrals from other sites and visitors via WPShout who are already on the Empty Spaces page. I had hoped this wouldn’t really be an issue, but where Empty Spaces has been included in “theme roundups”, often the Gumroad page has been directly linked, rather than the Shout article. In one case I even saw a “theme roundup” linking directly to a copy of the zip on the roundup site.

The conversion rate of visitors:downloads isn’t necessarily 33%, then, but because Gumroad can’t tell me in very much detail where visitors are coming from, and — because of hotlinking — not all downloads are even going through Gumroad, I can’t say how accurate that figure is. I would guess 25% +/- 5% would be accurate.

Okay, so… what does that mean? Does pay-what-you-want work?

Wooah, hang on! We’ve only looked at one aspect of this! I’ll run through some of the other bits of data quickly. With total revenue of £41, three people have paid £10, two people have paid £5 and one person has paid £1. What does this suggest? The payment of £1 is essentially a token payment; with Gumroad and card fees, I’m not sure I’ll actually see any of that. The other five payments are the ones to make note of, then, and they’re essentially indicating what people think the theme is worth to them.

If I was selling the theme with and wanted to put a lower-price bound on it, I’d go for £4.99, but — theme sellers take note — the “pay at least this amount” model does seem to work here, and people do seem to be happy to pay more for something when they perceive the value to be higher. You see the same thing on self-publishing music site Bandcamp, where they claim:

On name-your-price albums, fans pay an average of 50% more than the minimum.

So, I’ll finally answer the question: does pay-what-you-want work? The answer — yes, absolutely… for me, in these specific circumstances. I’ve let people to pay for a product I was going to just release for free, and offered no real incentive to pay. Support is included for both free and paying users in the form of a documentation file and dead-simple usage. If and when updates are needed, as I built the theme for myself and still use it, they’ll be available for all. What I’ve essentially done is prove people are willing to pay for something if they perceive it has value.

Does that mean pay-what-you-want is going to work for others, then? Not particularly, I don’t think. Certainly offering a themes with a minimum price is something that I’d recommend looking into, but I don’t imagine even that would work once the the price goes above £20.

Whilst I’ve shown here that some people will pay for something when they don’t have to, what I’ve also shown overwhelmingly is that people like free things. If you make your product available for free, 9/10 — or 94/100 in my case — people will take the free option. If you’re trying to sell WordPress themes to make money, this isn’t really going to work.

If your product is something you would have otherwise given away — and still want to do so — then pay-what-you-want doesn’t do any harm. I’m particularly thinking of free plugins here; through something like Gumroad you’ve essentially got a much more effective donate button.

It’s been a very interesting experiment, though, and something I would quite like to do again. The take home lesson is this really isn’t something for everyone, though. Thanks for reading; after all that if you want to check out Empty Spaces, you can do so here 😉

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