How to Choose Your WordPress eCommerce Plugin with Mike Hansen
WP eCommerce Show

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Episode 52 is the first of four shows in a series on Starting Your WordPress Online Store. In this show, we talk with Mike Hansen, WordPress expert at Bluehost, who is the sponsor for this series. Mike has a lot of experience around WordPress, and we brought him in to give us some tips on starting the search for a WordPress eCommerce plugin for your online store.

We chatted about:

  • The differences between using a plugin on your site vs. connecting with a plugin to an eCommerce platform
  • How to prepare for the expense of premium extensions, add-ons and plugins
  • Planning ahead for growth into other aspects of eCommerce, such as memberships, subscriptions and affiliates
  • The pros and cons of using a page builder for your online store
  • The importance of planning for and paying attention to your analytics

Thanks to Our Podcast Sponsor: Bluehost


Bob Dunn: Hey everyone. Welcome to our show. Bob Dunn here, also known as BobWP on the web. Today is not only episode 52, but it is the first series of Season Two. For those of you new to the show, our series consist of four consecutive Mondays where we talk with a special expert each Monday about an important aspect of running an eCommerce site.

Today, we are kicking off the series starting your WordPress online store. This series is going to cover the critical pieces you should get in place for your first online store,  creating your online presence from your brick-and-mortar shop, and ending with us looking at your product shots and making sure that they are doing the right job for you and your online store.

Meet Mike Hansen, the ‘WordPress Guy’ at Bluehost

To kick this series off, we are joined today by Mike Hansen, the WordPress guy of Bluehost and a long-time friend of mine, about choosing the right eCommerce plugin. Hey Mike, welcome to the show.

Mike Hansen: Hey Bob.

Bob Dunn: Now before we get into the questions, I gave you a title there, the WordPress guy, which is vague in a way. Can you tell us a bit more about what you do as far as keeping WordPress and Bluehost connected?

Mike Hansen: Yeah. I’ve been at Bluehost for a number of years and I’ve ad a few different roles. I started out on the open source team, contributing to open source projects and trying to make sure that we’re doing our commitment to the community in that sense. Then I became the lead WordPress developer and helped build out some of our features that we needed to have.

More recently, I’m doing WordPress product work as a WordPress product owner. What that means is that I’m just trying to make WordPress better at Bluehost all around. This is everything from our tools inside of our control panel to just the experience that the customer has as they onboard and get going with their WordPress website.

Bob Dunn: Very cool. I know that Casey, in our first show when we introduced this new partnership with Bluehost as a sponsor,  mentioned that there’s going to be come exciting stuff coming down the pike here over the next year. I’m anxious to see what happens there, and I’m sure you’re going to have your hands or arms up to your elbows, elbow deep into WordPress here it sounds like.

Mike Hansen: Absolutely, absolutely. I’m already in it.

The functions of different plugins: it’s all about your goal

Bob Dunn: Oh I bet. Now we’re anxious to talk about the specifics around choosing that plugin for your online store. First, can you clarify a bit by what it means to have plugin that puts the store on your site versus a plugin that connects you to another platform?

Mike Hansen: Yeah. I think what you’re saying there Bob is the difference between going with a solution like WooCommerce versus a solution like Shopify or PayPal. Is that correct?

Bob Dunn: Yeah, that’s exactly it.

Mike Hansen: Right. With something like WooCommerce, you’re going to get a store inside of your WordPress site rather than leading to an external store.

Is there an advantage to a plugin that puts your store on your site?

Bob Dunn: I know there’s so many variables here, and I have talked to a lot of people who have gone one way or another. What do you think is probably the biggest advantage to doing it on your site versus leading somebody to another platform?

Mike Hansen: I think if you do it on your website, you have a lot more control and a lot more ability to customize the experience to how you want the customer to experience shopping on your website.

Planning for your plugin and extension costs

Bob Dunn: Yeah, that leads us into the second question, talking about actual WordPress eCommerce plugins. You mentioned WooCommerce. There’s Easy Digital Downloads. There’s WP eCommerce and on and on and on.

Now I know a lot of these are supported by premium extensions, which means in order to have something done, hey, you got to get this. It may not be a feature everybody that uses that particular plugin needs, so you pay an extra fee to actually extend that feature to the existing free plugin.

Now people freak out because they don’t always realize that’s what’s going to happen. Is there some way that you would recommend to people for preparing budget-wise so they can see what cost will be involved or is it just dive into it and you’re going to find out as you move along?

Mike Hansen: I’m a fan of planning what you want to start with and where you want to go. If you start with saying I want an online web presence with an eCommerce store and you go ahead and use one of those plugins we mentioned, then you may need one or two premium plugins, probably depending on how you want to accept credit cards. It might be an Authorized.Net extension, a Stripe extension, or something like that that might cost you a little extra money.

I might say plan for a little bit of expense with that, but then your online store is an ever evolving product. As you go, you can get started with just that. Then, as you come up to something, you can then determine if this feature is worth the price. Honestly, in the plugin marketplace, you’re paying 50, 100, $200 for a feature that would otherwise cost you thousands of dollars if you had someone develop it for you.

In general, I would say it’s almost always worth buying the extension if it’s something you feel will benefit you.

Bob Dunn: I think that’s a good point because often people do look at it and say, oh, I need to buy this one or I need buy that one. They get overwhelmed with having to put out the money for so many of them, but just as you mentioned, if they were to step back and say, okay, now I’m going to hire somebody to actually do this to my site, customize it for this and that, then you are probably looking at a lot more money.

I guess another thing to add would be that if you don’t need that feature anymore, hey, you don’t have to renew your plugin.

Mike Hansen: The other thing is you don’t need it all upfront either. Six months from now, you can add a feature. When the time is right, you can add that additional feature if you think it’s necessary.

I don’t think you should plan on needing these 20 plugins right out of the gate because I need the best eCommerce store ever, right? Like I said, I think it’s an evolving product and you have to just start somewhere. I think when you plan and you say, this is what I’m starting with and this is my end goal, I think if you just take the steps along the way, you’ll be a little more prepared for those costs.

Mike’s tips for planning future needs

Bob Dunn: Yeah, and that’s good advice.  Don’t tackle everything upfront and also a lot of things you just aren’t going to realize that they’re needed or that you’re going to go off in a certain direction even six or seven months down the road.

We all love planning, but stuff does change, especially with an online store. What you’re selling may change and the needs with shipping or taxes and all that stuff, so excellent. Very good points.

Now talking about eCommerce is a huge umbrella. In fact,  when I was talking with Casey about it, we touched on that a bit because you can sell anything. Basically, eCommerce is it’s selling online. It’s not just products for online stores. There are memberships, subscriptions, online courses, affiliates, all this stuff.

Now when you’re talking about planning ahead or thinking about it, what’s your advice? Is it the same advice with that you may start an online store and then you start thinking, boy, I should have a rewards program and now I want to do subscriptions and memberships? How much upfront do you want to know as far as what you’re getting for your base plugin or your platform for what may happen down the road where you don’t have to say, oh, man now this plugin doesn’t do that at all, I have to start from square one again? Any tips on that?

Mike Hansen: Yeah. In the initial planning where you say what your potential end goal is, you prioritize that stuff, so you say, I have 10 or 20 products that I’m going to sell online, but I also have a couple of products that I don’t sell, but I’d actually like to refer to another website, more of an affiliate commission.

If you see that as a priority, then I would plan for that and see if the plugin supports that type of functionality before you get out of the gate. Now if that offsite referral is number 20 on your priority list, maybe you shouldn’t worry about it so much.

Bob Dunn: I think those are good points. It’s really hard because I know that myself I started with WooCommerce. Some people don’t even want to talk to me anymore because they’re like “What are you doing now Bob? You’ve changed so many times.” They can’t keep up with me, but I was always able to use that particular plugin because it just did so many different things. It was like, oh, I had no idea I was going to do an online course two years down the road after using it and all this stuff.

I think that’s one of the advantages of a lot of these plugin too is that a lot of them have that extensibility already built in. Like you said, plan for those things that are really important upfront, but then those unplanned things often fall into place too, so that’s pretty cool.

Mike Hansen: Yep, absolutely.

Pro’s and con’s of using a page builder

Bob Dunn: Now I’m going to give you a loaded question here. This is something especially if you’re in the WordPress community, and we all have our opinions on it and stuff, but can you give us in a nutshell, which is probably asking a lot in itself, the pros and cons of using a page builder for your online store?

Mike Hansen: Okay. Man, that is a loaded question.

Bob Dunn: Yeah, I knew it. I had to give one that just would make you pause.

Mike Hansen: With my development background, I’m not the hugest fan of page builders because I know how they store things. In a sense, they make it easy, but then they limit you in your future customizations, but when we look at it from a user perspective, there’s no denying that users want a page builder experience. It’s the best tool out there for them to get their site looking how they want.

They have an idea, and they have no development skills. They don’t know HTML, CSS or anything. They just know that this WordPress thing is supposed to be awesome. Then they get in there, and it’s a little overwhelming. It’s powerful, but it’s a little overwhelming from an I-want-to-add-an-image-here, a-button-there perspective.

When you use a page builder, I think that that really satisfies those users needs- as to having a little more creative freedom on their website. In that sense, I understand their existence. You can’t deny that.

Bob Dunn: I know a lot of designers that don’t want to really get into the heavy development of things use page builders for customers. I’ve found that, yeah, I’m all for that if that works for you, fine, but also, from experience over the last several years, I’ve gotten a lot of people coming to me with sites, whether they’re an online store or just a regular site for their business ,that have had somebody do a page builder or use a page builder to build it, and they just handed it over to them and gave them no education about the page builder.

They’re suddenly opening up their window to look at what should be a simple post. There’s all these little boxes in there, and they just totally freak out. There’s a learning curve. Anything like that you’re going to take time to learn, but if you’re also doing it for clients, it seems like you need to make sure that you educate people on what you’re handing over to them.

Mike Hansen: Yeah, very true.

Final thoughts: keep it simple, use your analytics and incorporate best practices

Bob Dunn: Now we’ve gone through a few questions here, and I’m thinking a plugin is not like rocket science because you’ve gone over some basics that people can think about, but I think there’s so much more to actually starting an online store.

Any final thoughts around our topic that we haven’t touched on or something that you’re just passionate about or that you think, man, I wish Bob would have asked me that question?

Mike Hansen: Yeah. I think one thing is is I think people tend to over-complicate what they want to do. One thing I would say is try to simplify your goals, whatever that might be. If it means, I think I’m only going to sell three to five products and that’s all I ever plan to sell, maybe in that scenario something like WooCommerce or Easy Digital Downloads or something like that might be too much. In that scenario, I would say a simple PayPal button goes a long way with that kind of a website.

The other thing I would say is I always think every project is an evolving project. You might have a successful store. It looks really nice. It’s really visually pleasing. Then you have your items and everything. As the customer shopping around on your website, optimization of that experience is always a bonus because there’s a lot of studies and a lot of articles around things you can do to help increase conversion rates, everything from say, the cart experience, to the checkout experience.

I would say set up your analytics, start watching that. Even if you’re not going to do anything with it today, set it up, so that you have it in the future when you need to go back and look. Take a look at your cart page, for example, and then start using some of those best practices, re-instilling confidence in the purchase. Maybe you need to put a testimonial right there in the cart or maybe that’s where you put your seal that says this is site is secured by Comodo or that kind of stuff.

There’s just a long list of those best practices that really do help. If an eCommerce store takes a look at that kind of stuff, I think you can take what you already have and just improve it.

Bob Dunn: Yeah, those are really good tips. In fact kind of a perfect segue because in our next show in the series, we’re going to be talking with Patrick Rauland and he’s going to be going over some of this stuff as far as what are the central pieces that you need to start your online store.

We talked about a plugin. Well, of course, that’s essential. You got to have something, the technical part of things, but there is so much more like you said, and I think those analytics are huge.

Mike Hansen: Yeah, absolutely. Sometimes we think we know, and the data will prove us wrong. It makes you take a step back and take a different view of things.

Bob Dunn: Yeah, it’s one of those things where you don’t assume anything because we know what assume means.

Mike Hansen: Right

Bob Dunn: Well, there you have it. I think people can start searching for that eCommerce plugin. I think you’ve given some good tips on what will put them on the right track. It’s not necessarily something that happens in a few minutes unless you know what you want, but there are a lot of different options out there. Throughout our shows, we’ll be talking about all of them. I just want to thank you, Mike, for taking the time to join us today.

Mike Hansen: Oh, absolutely. Anytime Bob.

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