Disconnect’s road to success

Developers create extensions for a variety of reasons. Some are hobbyists who want to freely share their work with the world. Some find a way to turn their project into a small, independent business. Some companies build extensions as part of a business strategy. Earlier this year, we interviewed several add-on developers to learn more about the business models for their extensions. We learned a lot from those conversations, and have drawn on them to create upcoming experiments that we think will help developers succeed. We’ll be posting more information about participating in these experiments in the next few weeks.

In the meantime, we asked Disconnect CEO Casey Oppenheim to share his thoughts about what has made his company’s popular privacy-enhancing browser extension of the same name successful. Disconnect is an open-source extension that enables users to visualize and block third-party trackers. Together, Mozilla and Disconnect studied the performance benefits of blocking trackers and learned that tracking protection more than doubles page loading speeds. This work led us to build Enhanced Tracking Protection directly into Firefox in 2019 using Disconnect’s tracking protection list.

Today, Disconnect earns revenue by offering privacy apps at different price points and partnerships with organizations like Mozilla. They have also extensively experimented on monetizing the Disconnect browser extension to support its development and maintenance. Following are some of the learnings that Casey shared.

Why did you decide to create this feature as an extension?

Extensions are a really powerful way to improve user privacy. Extensions have the ability to “see” and block network requests on any and all webpages, which gave us the ability to show users exactly what companies were collecting data about their browsing and to stop the tracking. Browser extensions also were a great fit for the protection we offer, because they allow developers to set different rules for different pages. So for example, we can block Facebook tracking on websites Facebook doesn’t own, but allow Facebook tracking on facebook.com, so that we don’t break the user experience.

What has contributed to Disconnect’s success?

Our whole team is sincerely passionate about creating great privacy products. We make the products we want to use ourselves and fortunately that approach has resonated with a lot of users. That said, user feedback is very important to us and some of our most popular features were based on user suggestions. In terms of user growth, we rely a lot on word of mouth and press coverage rather than paid marketing. Being featured on addons.mozilla.org has given us great visibility and helped us reach a larger audience.

When did you decide to monetize your extension?

We began monetizing our extension in mid-2013, years before Firefox itself included tracker blocking. Since that time we have conducted several experiments that have always been based on voluntary payments, the extension has always been free to use.

Are there any tips you would want to share with developers about user acquisition or monetization?

We’ve learned a few lessons on this topic the hard way. Probably the most important is that it is very difficult to successfully monetize by interrupting the user flow. For example, we had the great idea of serving a notification inside the extension to try and get users to pay. The end result was terrible reviews and a bad user experience coupled with minimal increase in revenue. In our experience, trying to monetize in context (e.g., right after install) or passively (e.g., a button that is visible in the user interface) works better.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Extensions are essential apps for billions of users. Developers should absolutely pursue monetization.

Thank you, Casey! 

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