September 4th, 2019

WordPress Plugin or Custom Development: Which Should You Choose?

Author: Eric Lynch
Eric Lynch
Partner & Director of Business Development

When do you need an out-of-the-box WordPress plugin, and when should you invest in custom dev?

You’ve put a lot of resources into the buildout of your new website, but there are a few pieces of functionality you need to get the end results you’re looking for. Maybe it’s a custom scheduling tool to update the banner on your home page whenever you have a sale going on. Or perhaps it’s something more advanced, like an appointment scheduler. You could search through the WordPress plugin library for something that fits, but there’s a more elegant solution at hand: Have your developer build a custom feature into your theme.

There are plenty of Javascript libraries out there that save your developers a lot of work. They can build off the work of their peers and fine tune the customization until it looks like it belongs natively on your site. While it’s not always the solution you need, it’s certainly one you should think about. Here are some of the key questions to ask yourself as you consider your options.

Factors to consider when deciding between a premium plugin or custom development:

  • How much does the premium plugin license cost vs. custom dev? On average, a premium plugin license often costs between $40–$100 a year to maintain. That’s every year, on every site that uses that plugin. Custom development is a higher cost up-front, but it doesn’t come with annual renewal costs. And, if you have multiple domains, your web developer can deploy that custom dev across all your sites without added fees.
  • What kind of features does the premium plugin have, and how many of them do you need? Purchased plugins may have one feature you want, and a hundred others you don’t. In some cases that isn’t a big deal, but in others, those extra features intrude on the user experience. It’s a classic case of “it’s not a feature, it’s a bug.”
  • Is the premium plugin a perfect fit or an emergency patch? How well does the plugin actually address your needs? Is it a solution you can live with long-term, or is it an imperfect match? Remember: a plugin that causes a lot of friction for you is probably also a usability concern for your visitors.

A standard WordPress plugin works best when:

  • The plugin has a good reputation and accomplishes something that would be prohibitively expensive to custom develop. We have several plugins that we swear by, some of which we use on almost every website we build. These include Gravity Forms, WooCommerce, Yoast SEO, and iThemes Security. These are fantastic products that do more than we could reasonably maintain on our own, and they have a stellar reputation in the WordPress community. If someone is trying to pitch you custom development on a form builder like Gravity Forms, you’re likely to waste a lot of money on a product that doesn’t work as well. They’re either scamming you, or they’re incompetent. Fire them and find someone who knows what they’re doing.
  • The plugin is relatively minimalist and isn’t overloaded with irrelevant features. One of the reasons the aforementioned plugins work so well is that they don’t intrude too much into the design of the site, and can be readily adapted to match a theme. Gravity Forms, for instance, offers a lot of options for form styles and buttons that make it easy to match them to the site. As a plugin, it blends in to the design so that you wouldn’t know it’s not a native design element.
  • The plugin doesn’t interfere with the front end of the site. On the other end of the spectrum, plugins like Yoast SEO and iThemes operate on the back end of the site. They not only do their job well, but they are invisible to the user, and therefore don’t stand in the way of your design.

Read our post: 4 WordPress Plugins to Boost Your Content Marketing

Custom WordPress development is a better investment when:

  • The plugin will unnecessarily affect the front end design of your website. We’ve seen many a beautiful design destroyed by a bad plugin. Whether it’s a lack of customization that makes poor design decision stand out like a sore thumb, or added features that get in the way of a clean user experience, these plugins should be avoided at all costs.
  • The plugin options available aren’t a good match for your needs. Some plugins might be fine for some people, but wrong for your site. If the plugin you’re considering isn’t a good fit, it could lose you more business than you save by skimping on the custom development you really need.
  • The custom development work will be a relatively low investment. If you’re already working with a qualified development company, you should ask them for a quote. In some cases, you can get the custom work you need with only a few hours of investment.
  • The custom development will be an integral part of your site and is highly specific to your business. On the other end of the spectrum, the more front-and-center this piece of functionality is, the more crucial it is to get every detail right. If you expect your visitors to engage heavily with this development piece, then custom development is worth the added investment.

WordPress has a great plugin library, but custom development may be a better option.

One of the great selling points of WordPress is its fantastic plugin library. Because it is an open-source platform, there are thousands of plugin developers around the world creating pieces of website functionality that may just fit your need. However, the more those plugins are designed to meet the widest possible need, the more likely it is they won’t be specific enough to suit your specialized case.

Read our post: 7 Reasons Why You Need a WordPress CMS Website

Fortunately, the open source nature of WordPress that makes those plugins a possibility also open the door for custom development. Whether your custom development project is major or minor, it’s smart to investigate your options and make an informed decision before jumping on a plugin that only half fits the bill. If you aren’t certain what your website needs, contact us about your project and we can give you a quote.

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