ACF Solicits Lifetime License Holders for Contributions, Urging Them to Purchase Annual Subscriptions

The Advanced Custom Fields (ACF) marketing team at Delicious Brains kicked up a sandstorm over the weekend after it emailed its lifetime license holders, asking them to consider signing up for a discounted subscription. Despite Delicious Brains’ explicit promise that they would never be required to pay for ACF updates in the future, the sales email insinuates that the development team is in need of appreciation in the form of annual paid subscriptions:

I know you already have a lifetime license for ACF Pro, but I’m hoping you’ll consider signing up for a discounted subscription to support our ongoing work in continuing to improve Advanced Custom Fields.

We’ve shipped two major releases (5.10 and 5.11) since we took over development of the plugin from Elliot in June, including a full-featured REST API! If you’re a fan of the work we’ve done so far, nothing will show our developers that you appreciate them more than signing up for an ACF Pro subscription, especially since you already have a lifetime license.

This bewildering pitch to lifetime license holders landed in email boxes on the Friday after Thanksgiving in the US. It drew more attention after Paul Charlton, creator of WPTuts, tweeted a screenshot of the email, saying it left “a really bad taste” in his mouth. Charlton also recorded a reaction video that succinctly articulates why the email was so irksome to many lifetime license customers. He suggested Delicious Brains instead take the approach of offering a discount on their other subscription products.

“If you’re going to broach the topic of asking lifetime subscribers to suddenly pay for $250/year for the same product, I would just think that something, anything, could be offered,” one lifetime license holder said.

Some lifetime license holders found the email pitch was especially perplexing after the confusing messaging when Delicious Brains acquired ACF. A hasty response to a customer inquiry caused lifetime license holders to question if the company would continue honoring the agreement after the acquisition.

“Lifetime license holders will get all ACF Pro software updates forever,” Delicious Brains founder and CEO Brad Touesnard said at the time. “They won’t be required to pay for version 6.0 or any other major or minor releases in the future. They signed up for updates for life, so we’ll continue to deliver on that promise forever.”

Some lifetime license holders tried to read between the lines of the recent sales emails and wondered if Delicious Brains was signaling an end to its commitment.

“What happened to our lifetime licenses being honored and we would get full and continued updates for life?” Brian J McCracken said in response to the email. “They haven’t said they aren’t doing that but talk about skirting the intention with this guilt trip.” Others are also skeptical, speculating that Delicious Brains may repurpose the code for a new product so they can “kill off the LTD’s once and for all.”

“I honestly believe they WANT the LTD owners to leave,” WordPress developer Wendell Harness said. “Think about it — they won’t have to support us anymore. An email like this may garner a few buy-ins while also wiping away a bunch of people they no longer want to support. It’s brilliant. Rude, but still brilliant.”

Those on the other side of the argument disagree with the notion that lifetime license holders should expect updates indefinitely.

“You paid a hundred bucks or so 5 years ago and you expect a company to keep adding value to your business that could have been generating hundred of thousands of dollars in revenue,” 10up WordPress engineer Clayton Collie said in response to critics of the email. “They could abandon the project. How would you feel about that?”

After the sales email created new confusion on the status of lifetime licenses, ACF tweeted to reaffirm their commitment to honor them, but many recipients had already formed their own conclusions about the intent of the email.

“We’ve heard from many lifetime customers who are happy with the work we’ve already been doing to improve ACF and glad to contribute by subscribing,” Touesnard said in response to customers who suggested the company offer something in return for signing up to a new annual subscription. “If you don’t feel the way they do, that’s fine, you aren’t required to subscribe.”

The heated conversations have renewed the controversial topic of selling lifetime licenses in the WordPress product space. Few have done this successfully long term, and it gets trickier when a company is acquired.

“I see both sides for this – as someone who bought a lifetime ACF license 7 years ago and also a plugin dev,” Amber Hinds said. “Really lifetime licenses should be offered with extreme caution.”

In many cases, when early adopters purchase a lifetime license, they are usually paying much more than the regular license, for an unproven product that isn’t guaranteed a future. This gives newer products the money they need to build momentum but also offers something in return. It’s a transaction where each participant extracts some value and assumes a share of the risk.

In this particular scenario, ACF appears to be mistaking its relationship with lifetime license holders as something more akin to investors or donors. Customers who purchase lifetime licenses rarely share those same motivations.

It’s quite unusual for a Black Friday sales email to ask for contributions for a product consumers have already paid for long ago. This unorthodox sales approach and timing was off-putting to many of the recipients. Was it worth upsetting a slew of customers who are not bringing ACF any money for the rest of its life as a product? Only the Delicious Brains team knows how successful the campaign has been so far. When asked if the email is generating new signups from lifetime license customers, Touesnard said the developer who pulls that report was not currently available.

“Does a company that spans across five very popular products require a donation approach, to keep a product like ACF, afloat?” WordPress business podcaster Matt Medeiros said in a post titled “WordPress, the multi-billion dollar software industry that has us begging for money.”

“If so, we better start getting better at pricing and voting with our dollars,” he said.

“Either way, expecting lifetime updates for one price, coupled with a part-time donation strategy, is bad for both the consumer and the business. I don’t see any other major markets operating this way.”

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20 responses to “ACF Solicits Lifetime License Holders for Contributions, Urging Them to Purchase Annual Subscriptions”

  1. Ndna Jnz says:

    Yeah, it’s called “Lifetime” for one reason. I purchase Lifetime plans for nearly every software where available. And it’s often a super great deal for customers, especially as early adopters while a product is in its early stages, and still under full development.

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  2. This is definitely a strange tactic. ACF has been under-priced (considering the lifetime, unlimited site term) for years, and I can understand new ownership wanting to create recurring revenue.

    If they were going to do something like this, it may have been better when the acquisition first occurred. Write a blog post explaining that, while they will abide by the lifetime licenses, there are a lot of costs associated with continued development.

    Show customers exactly what paying the annual subscription fee does in terms of funding the product and support staff. Then offer something of value in return. Maybe it’s a discount or free year for another product.

    Be as open as possible. Otherwise, this doesn’t look flattering.

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    • Ndna Jnz says:

      Sorry Eric, I disagree – somewhat.
      “Lifetime” means lifetime. Yes, they are a new owner, and if they had any inclination not to honor those previously purchased Lifetime sub’s, they should’ve been upfront when they took over. But, pulling this latest stunt after they already stated they are going to honor Lifetime sub’s is simply poor business tactic. If DB thinks the original price of Lifetime was too low, well they knew that going in and should not have said they would honor them.

      That said, new owners can do what they want. So, if they really feel the need to ask Lifetimers to pony-up, perhaps it would be better to ask for a one-time “Continue Lifetime” charge at a very reasonable amount. That, I could likely digest more easily.

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  3. alex vasquez says:

    I don’t see what the uproar is all about. They’re honoring Lifetime Licenses, they’re not changing it. However, it does cost money to support the product’s users and make improvements. This is probably the best way to do that, to ask existing customers who appreciate the product to consider further supporting it, ensuring it’ll be around. There are better ways they could’ve incentivized but oh well.

    I think what we will see are features or goodies that will only be available to subscription holders. That’ll kick up even more sand but I’m here for it.

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    • Devin Walker says:

      I agree. Could the email been worded better? Yes. Could they provide some value to subscribing rather than simply asking? Sure. But for all the WP folks who make money using ACF who are making a the hubbub, they can take a hike in my opinion.

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    • Dave Loodts says:

      What Alex says. I don’t get the fuzz either. Why being so sensitive over just a marketing mail? I remember exactly the way how i got my LTD of ACF. I’ve had the annual license and then ACF did a “campaign” to upgrade it to LTD for… -hold on – …. ZERO euro. Yes, and i’m probably not the only one having a LTD for free. Eliot was a brilliant developper but his sales-skills weren’t that benifitial for him. During the period where ACF succesfully struggled itself into new the block-era, i even contacted Eliot to ask if i could pay anually. I was really amazed by his work back then, working half Gutenberg blindly because of the lack of documentation. His answer on my request: we don’t offer annual plans yet.
      ACF is for a lot of developpers the only tool to create blocks and to be “innovative” in this block era. Eliot deserves a statue in my opinion, that i dropped a few times on Twitter.
      About Delicious Brains, they are rightfull to ask it. The only thing that “could” have bugged me (and where DB lost their shot on success) is to treat “old” customers as “new” customers, and paying the full amount. I work +6 years with ACF, i know that tool. So far had 3 to 4 support requests. What could have worked better for DB? Treat them as ACF supporters with a special unique Supporters plan: for example €99/year. And to give an extra reason to buy: 30% goes to a good charity.
      (okay: you can hire me for Marketing advice; hahaha)

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  4. BasicD says:

    On a different note, Annual subscriptions do not make sense, cost of creating a plugin vs the cost of upgrading the plugin is not comparable. The appropriate pricing is to charge $xx upfront for software and a portion of it as upgrades and maintenance $x as recurring annual fees.

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  5. Miroslav Glavic says:

    Lifetime licenses are stupid. This is the nicest sentence I could type.

    They don’t really support the creator(s) of the plugin/theme.

    I have never purchased a lifetime license to any software and I will never do it.

    If a plugin or theme helps you out by making your site’s life easier then support the creator/maintainer of that plugin/theme.

    I just checked ACF’s pricing: The most expensive one is $249 a year. If you divide it into 12 months, $20.75 a month.

    That’s like going to McDonald’s with your partner/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/whatever you have…….and having a couple McCombo Hamburgers.
    That’s like ordering a pizza once a day.

    If you have a coffee every weekday (5*4=20), you spend more on coffee.

    Not that I use ACF.

    I have no problem supporting the community.

    The cheapest pricing is $49 a year. That’s around $4.10 a month.

    Should they of worded it better? Sure. Should people “rip them apart”, no

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    • J says:

      That’s great until McDonald’s says you can pay one fee and eat McDouble’s for life. That’s what’s happening here.

      Cost-value propositions only make sense before purchase. Once I’ve paid for a service it’s the businesses fault for not honoring. If Lifetime services don’t make enough money to keep you afloat, don’t offer them. There is a reason that this isn’t in practice at McDonalds, coffee shops, pizza places, or anywhere else. It’s a terrible idea, and one that DB had all of the information about when purchasing the company.

      Not to mention DB just sent out an email to all of their longtime subscribers letting them know they’d no longer be receiving the 30% yearly discount we’ve historically gotten. How long before these Lifetime members, who are now also subscribers, are no longer receive their discount?

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    • Rosmen Alvarez says:

      I adquired a lifetime license when I had a job. I ‘ve jobless for various years, and only took some quick works where the client isn’t a POS. I use ACF in all my proyects, but all these quick works I took are underpayed. If I had to buy an anual suscription, I need to drop ACF from my projects and stop taking these works, because my experience and focus are around ACF. If I had a stable job, I don’t mind to pay for a subscription. But in this situation, the lifetime license not only is the better for me, but it saved me.

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  6. Carlson Heiri says:

    If you buy a plugin project which has issued lifetime licences, you are aware of that before making the deal. If those lifetime licences are a problem for you, don’t buy the plugin project or negotiate a buying price which covers that problem. Ongoing development costs are priced in, deal with it. Or take it as a learning curve for your business capabilities if you did not think about that before.

    Sidenote, the links in that newsletter (and a newsletter before) are redirected through some shady third party tracking company without any mention nor consent from newsletter subscribers. Voids GDPR regulations. Delicious Brains has been notified about that before, no reaction.

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  7. Andy says:

    I wasn’t offended by the email but ever since Delicious Brains acquired it I’ve been using fewer ACF features whenever possible, on the chance that they’ll stab the Lifetimers in the back someday and I’ll have to switch back to CMB2 or something. I’m all for supporting creators but lifetime licenses are offered for a reason — ACF is one of the most popular plugins in the world and it probably owes a lot of that success to the bulk influx of cash and adoption that they initially provided. Development costs cannot possibly be the issue for a plugin this big, so if they’re hating on the Lifetimers for using too much support, then first off they may want to focus on why people are having so many problems in the first place to reduce support requests across the board, and then if they’re still desperately overwhelmed perhaps offer some kind of priority support for a nominal fee. But any plugin that offers a free version in the WP repo, which is probably the real support bottleneck if there is one, should not be begging Lifetimers to start paying. Rather they should probably focus on increasing the value of the Pro version to try and convince free users to upgrade.

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  8. Louis says:

    Hmmmm . . .

    A lot of people don’t seem to understand the word “Lifetime”.

    Yes, I expect, when I pay for something that says “Lifetime”, that I won’t be making any further payments, ever! When a developer or team of developers offer lifetime options, I expect that offer to mean what it says.

    When someone else takes over a project, I expect that there will be times of being unsure. However, when the people who take over that project say they will honor the lifetime committment of those who purchased that license, I don’t expect them to come to me crying that they need appreciation and monetary pats on the back for doing the job they commited to do.

    I kept my end of the deal. I expect them to do the same (without trying to make me feel sorry for them).

    I recently had a brief exchange with someone from that team on one of their other plugins. I got a “copy/paste” respose. And they didn’t follow up after I responded. Not impressed. And not a customer.

    Maybe if developers stopped trying to get rich off of a few who can afford the over priced product they are putting out and lowered the cost of plans so that more people could take advantage of monthly or yearly plans, they wouldn’t have to go back to the pocket books of those who took a chance on the project in the beginning.

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  9. Thomas says:

    I bought a Lifetime License of ACF Pro B-E-C-A-U-S-E it was a good deal back then. Otherwise, I would have sticked to the alternatives.
    I have only built one site with ACF, and decided that Meta Box or even Toolset work better for me, as I need also Custom Post Types and Custom Taxonomies. I prefer a complete solution that covers all my metadata needs.

    But nevertheless, ACF is probably a fantastic plugin in its field. However, when I use a plugin for dynamic data what is also important for me is its long-term stability and the lack of drama around the plugin. You can easily switch from one caching plugin to another, or replace a social sharing plugin. But migrating custom fields and other metadata from one such plugin to another can be stressful and a lot of hassle. Especially, if you must do it on multiple sites that you have built over the years. That’s why I value the company’s track record and don’t like such stunts.

    The two stunts related to LTLs by Delicious Brains have created a very bad impression. I think they should work on their PR skills.

    If they had a healthy stream of subscribers, then making the same updates available to LTL holders would not incur additional costs. Support, of course, is different, but how many LTL holders still use the support? Therefore, I think the underlying issue is that their new subscription sales are disappointing or not as expected. However, guilting the early adopters – LTL holders will not help them.

    How about analyzing the market and the competitors? Maybe the price is too high, or the competitors offer products which are more attractive to potential customers? I can only speak of myself…

    Imagine you bought something during a Black Friday sale a few years ago. And then, after several years, the seller starts suggesting to you that, since it’s such a great product, you pay now the difference between the price you paid and the current price, adjusted for inflation and multiplied several times. Facepalm, right?

    I really wish Delicious Brains a lot of success with subscription sales. And I’m saying that as a Meta Box / Toolset user. Good luck! Competition is great for users and I really want ACF to grow and be successful.

    Cheers!

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  10. Ricardo says:

    When I go for a Lifetime license, I’m investing more. Besides the larger investment, it also means I’m risking more. The plugin was great at that time but the future (specially with Gutenberg coming along) was uncertain.
    They have to see me as a “stockholder”, a company “member”. I believed in what they were doing and invested in that. I “helped” to produce the product.
    It would be very strange if they would ask me to pay again for something I own.
    I don’t mind making a donation, if they have a method of doing so, and in my own free will.
    The rest is up to the new methods of investment. If they have a good product, they can sell it well.

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  11. Tsotne Kalandadze says:

    Carbon Fields? Anyone?

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  12. Alvaro says:

    Why offer lifetime licenses?
    – Gain many users quickly
    – Inflow of capital
    – Gain traction
    – spread the word
    – Gain market share (and discourage competition)

    It’s a way to create a brand and a business faster, because it has an increase in customers in a shorter period of time.

    Lifetime licenses are a challenge when business reaches a certain size. But we must not forget that business grew due to the ease of entry.

    Wanting to limit the validity of these licenses is not serious.

    DB could offer special conditions when purchasing other of its products. Or create specific support licenses, leaving the forum for community support. This might make some sense, because support has a fixed cost.

    From the point of view of the ACF acquisition, what interested DB? Ensure the continuity of ACF? Make money with ACF? Grow the user base and business?

    At this point, it may seem that the amount of lifetime licenses is dead weight for their business, but the truth is that it has reached this dimension thanks to lifetime licenses.

    Also, there must be a lot of people with underused lifetime licenses. I, for example, have two licenses, I bought the second one to support Elliot, because I don’t even use the first one on more than 2 or 3 sites.

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