If you’re not into watching the WordPress community chatter like a hawk, you might have missed it, but earlier this month something odd starting happening. Queue the music.


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Background

Wix started sending mysterious packages to known names in the community. The secret package contained some fancy Bose headphones and a link to a “top secret” website. Josh Koenig has a fantastic Twitter thread documenting his experience and thoughts, Hey hey! Looks like I’m influencer enough to get in on Wix’s controversial campaign against #WordPress – a thread! Just to make your life a little easier, the “top secret” site URL is www.secret-update.com/from-wp.

A little humor to begin this epic article:

Fun note, I did spend significant time via my contacts trying to get a bit of detail about the strategy, and got my first official no comment from their PR department: “We’re not going to provide further comment at the moment.”

The tweet from Josh is a little later than others but suffice it to say, the WordPress can of worms was kicked wide open. The story and the expected WordPress reactions on social and other media did provide significant entertainment value. The story certainly received significant columns in two separate stories on WP Tavern. In my opinion, one was more than enough, some guerrilla marketing is bound to make waves. It makes more waves when the target, “WordPress,” gets reactionary and amplifies the original message.

It really goes through the roof when Matt Mullenweg, WordPress cofounder, jumps into the fray.

Matt Mullenweg Responds to Wix

As soon as I saw the Wix marketing plan, I spoke (yes, on a phone) with some #MorningCoffee supports and really hoped the WP Tavern pieces would be the end of this. Though not directed by Matt Mullenweg, WP Tavern can sometimes be seen as the unofficial unofficial (that’s right two “unofficials”) voice of Matt. Even that is a strong statement but there are certainly connections, so I thought that those articles would be the end of it.

Nope. Matt Mullenweg, Wix and Their Dirty Tricks: “Wix, the website builder company you may remember from stealing WordPress code and lying about it, has now decided the best way to gain relevance is attacking the open source WordPress community in a bizarre set of ads. They can’t even come up with original concepts for attack ads, and have tried to rip-off of Apple’s Mac vs PC ads, but tastelessly personify the WordPress community as an absent, drunken father in a therapy session. 🤔”

The tone continues for a while. So, according to my best guess a plan that has been in the works by Wix for at least six month, Avishai Abrahami, CEO of Wix, responds. You had to know this was in the pipeline. This whole marketing strategy isn’t ad hoc.

Avishai Abrahami Responds to Matt

From the Wix Blog: “I just finished reading your post, and I see that there is a lot of anger and many half-truths that you said. Wow. I guess that we touched a sore point there.” Weeeee!

Avishai takes on Matt’s post pretty much one for one. It’s a clash of CMS titans, which in many ways doesn’t benefit either community. But it’s absolutely not about the communities, the real fight is for market share that isn’t necessarily determined by us deep-in-the-trenches open source and CMS folk.

Parsing the Letters

I’m going to try and grab the salient excerpts from Matt and Avishai, and yes add my thoughts on the veracity and angle of each issue, wish me luck!

Matt: it must have felt bad working on something that’s like Encyclopedia Britannica attacking Wikipedia

Avishai: I believe in friendly competition. Competitors push each other by competing.

Let’s be clear, the Wix ads are not friendly. It’s Apple vs PC. There’s plenty of snark. If we all just competed on facts, marketing agencies probably wouldn’t exist. So of course stuff like this will get spun in circles. But comparing this metaphysical battle to Encyclopedia Britannica vs Wikipedia is a terrible analogy. I could literally never pay a cent and utilize Wikipedia, you will most likely be paying when using either Wix or WordPress. Yes Wix and Automattic have free plans.

Automattic?? Very important aside, when I say WordPress I try to always mean “the open source project/community/ecosystem” – there is a commercial SaaS product called WordPress.com which is a business of Automattic, Inc. and founded by Matt Mullenweg. This confusion continues to be an insane and ongoing communication pain in the ass. It invites confusion and attacks that conflate both a private company, its product, and a wholly separate open source project.

Matt: Wix is a for-profit company with a valuation that peaked at around 20 billion dollars, and whose business model is getting customers to pay more and more every year and making it difficult to leave or get a refund.

Avishai: One way that users can export content from Wix was even developed by WordPress: https://WordPress.com/support/import/import-from-wix/

Well you can’t beat that give and take. There are actually two points I want to pick on here. First, Matt’s picking on Wix’s business model is not 100% genuine (maybe 95% but not 100%). Automattic has a pay more to get more SaaS business model just like Wix. While Automattic certainly makes is easy to export your WordPress.com site to a third party that provide WordPress services, I don’t see any (and neither would I expect!) tools to export to Joomla or Drupal (other open source content management systems) let alone any commercial proprietary platforms. It’s silly to think that Wix would either.

I do want to make it clear that I think Matt is 100% correct, that the Wix “business model is getting customers to pay more and more every year and making it difficult to leave.” I can’t speak for the refunds but yes, Wix wants to lock you in without a doubt. Hopefully by providing value, but as we know from the bad old Microsoft days, lock-in is easy money.

Second, the commercial interests are huge with Automattic and Wix. As of publication Wix is at approximately $16.7B USD in valuation. While Wix is a public company and we can freely get that data, Automattic is still privately held. We know that Salesforce Ventures valued Automattic at $3B USD back in September 2019. There are also plenty of other similarly large firms in the ecosystem, WP Engine and even the heavily WordPress focused Newfold Digital. I am very confident that the WordPress economy towers over the Wix economy, so I think Matt trying to show Wix as a giant green eyed monster (my take) doesn’t work.

Matt: Philosophically, I believe in open source, and if WordPress isn’t a good fit for you there are other great open source communities like Drupal, Joomla, Jekyll, and Typo3. We also have a great relationship with some of our proprietary competitors, and I have huge respect for the teams at Shopify and Squarespace, and even though we compete I’ve always seen them operate with integrity and I’d recommend them without hesitation.

I have to believe that users will care about that in the long run, and maybe that’s why Squarespace just passed up Wix in market share.

Avishai: … With Squarespace, you can’t export your designs, templates, applications inside the website, databases for the applications, and as for the eCommerce, you can only export your static content, and for some reason, only one blog post, so to move from Squarespace, you have to start from zero on another platform.

While I’m not looking for winner and loser in “each round” – Wix can’t provide any defense to Matt’s open source salvo. Wix is betting that customers paying don’t either don’t fully understand the greater flexibility benefits of open source, or even more likely, just don’t care.

The tweak about market share is interesting though for totally different reasons. I grabbed data from W3Techs (which is where Matt got his) and decided to expand the view to starting from January 1, 2017 and include usage as well as marketshare.

2017/Jan2018/Jan2019/Jan2020/Jan2021/Jan2021/Apr
WordPress27.3%29.2%32.7%35.4%39.5%41.0%
Shopify0.6%0.9%1.4%1.9%3.2%3.4%
Joomla3.4%3.2%3.0%2.6%2.2%2.1%
Squarespace0.5%0.7%1.4%1.5%1.4%1.6%
Wix0.3%0.4%1.0%1.3%1.5%1.5%
Historical yearly trends in the usage statistics of content management systems, W3Techs
2017/Jan2018/Jan2019/Jan2020/Jan2021/Jan2021/Apr
WordPress58.5%60.0%59.7%62.1%64.1%64.7%
Shopify1.3%1.8%2.6%3.4%5.2%5.4%
Joomla7.2%6.5%5.4%4.6%3.6%3.3%
Squarespace1.1%1.5%2.6%2.7%2.3%2.5%
Wix0.6%0.9%1.8%2.3%2.4%2.4%
Market share yearly trends for content management systems, W3Techs

WordPress is the king here, and Joomla is the only other open source CMS in the top 5 (I ignored “None” as a row in the usage chart). Joomla’s stats peaked in 2017 in this data set, and had a catastrophic decline primarily from 2018 – 2021. I don’t see it leaving the top 5 but WordPress is going to have to champion open source against many proprietary rivals.

Wix and Squarespace are, in the short-term, going to be toe-to-toe in usage and marketshare. If you look a little deeper into the numbers, in over four years, Wix has had phenomenal growth! We are dealing with smaller number to start with but .3% to 1.5% usage and .6% to 2.4% marketshare?! Those are amazing.

Cui Bono?

The rest of the letters seem like two people who really just don’t like each other. That’s fine, but who benefits from the this back and forth? That’s easy. Wix. The marketing campaign has already probably exceeded all internal goals, and the subsequent organic traffic will drive sales. I guarantee it. Why? Because we in the industry are not the ultimate audience, we know the tools we want to use and they are not strictly driven by advertising and flash. The customers who want everything boxed, and get easily scared by boogeyman terms like “hacks” and “broken updates” will be wooed by proprietary SaaS.

This is a certainly a wakeup call to all in the WordPress ecosystem: that polished advertising, communication, and education need to happen. Campaigns need to be planned like Wix. A letter from Matt is not the answer.

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