WinCustomize.com is a website whose goals are to promote a skinning community as well as help support content being created and shared that is for use with Stardock's software. Over the years, WinCustomize.com's popularity has grown immensely. By October of 2005, it had reached a staggering 25 million monthly visitors. Because the site focuses largely on the downloading of skins, themes, icons, and wallpapers, the bandwidth expenses for the site are enormous. In addition, as the site has tried to sustain a feeling of community as opposed to being merely a glorified FTP site, the expense in running the site has grown due to the need to bring in and coordinate increasing numbers of file, SQL, and scripting servers.
In its present state, Stardock pays for the cost of WinCustomize that isn't covered by advertising revenue and WinCustomize subscriptions. WinCustomize is a very valuable asset of Stardock and the community that it supports means a lot to the the people who work at Stardock. Stardock is a privately held company so its motivations are not necessarily driven by maximizing profit (in other words, making money isn't the only goal).
However, while WinCustomize's importance to Stardock is immense, it is not infinite. Simply put, the cost of running WinCustomize has outstripped Stardock's ability to sustain it. Of the 25 million visitors each month, over 3 million of them are "unique" (i.e. different people). Obviously, most of those users aren't Stardock customers in any form. To make WinCustomize viable, the model under which is operates needs to evolve. It is clear that a subscription drive isn't going to be enough. The October subscription drive managed to bring in less than 1,000 people -- many of whom were existing subscribers who re-subscribed. In essence, of a website that gets over 3 million different people visiting, it would seem that our "hard core" community of users is probably less (guessing) than a few thousand. In other words, the "community" of users is still relatively small which isn't necessarily all bad.
Over the coming months, users will see a gradual evolution of the site designed to increase revenue coming into the site. Most of the effort will come from increasing advertising revenue. The rest will come from encouraging subscriptions and providing financial rewards to skin authors.
Users who have Object Desktop will become distinct from users who have simply purchased a product. Object Desktop users will not have full WinCustomize subscription status but they will have unlimited downloads. Those who have purchased a given product (such as WindowBlinds or IconPackager) will have unlimited downloads in their corresponding product but not in other areas. The biggest change an Object Desktop user will see is that some skins will be marked as subscriber-only for the first 30 days and those skins will be part of the normal gallery. Otherwise, things will be essentially the same.
The biggest changes for users who haven't purchased is that the site will have a lot more advertising on it and there will be a much greater push for users to create an account.
Classes of users:
0: People who do not have accounts.
1: People who have created an account but have no subscription and have not purchased a product. Accounts are free to create.
2: People who have purchased a product or subscription in the past but are currently not active customers
3: People who are active customers (purchased a product in the past year).
4: People who have an active Object Desktop account.
5: People who have a WinCustomize Platinum Subscription.
Users with Apprentice Access to Master Apprentice will have the equivalent of Group 4. Users with Journeyman access on up will have the equivalent of group 5. Users with Contributor access will have the equivalent of Group 2.
Group 0 users will not be able to download skins and themes that are 0 days old. They will only be able to download 10 megabytes of other skins & themes. The number of ads they see will be akin to what people see on other sites -- in other words quite a bit. They will be designed to bypass the various ad-blocking programs (Stardock, after all, is a software developer, we can get around this stuff if we put effort into it).
Group 1 users will be able to download up to 50 megabytes of skins and themes without having to purchase something or contribute something. They will see a lot of ads but not quite as much as group 0. Still quite a bit more than they see today. The number of ads these users see will grow based on the # of megabytes they download. At first, a group 1 user would see about the same # of ads as group 2 but then it would steadily increase. The system will also be updated to make it more difficult to bypass.
Group 2 users will be able to download up to 500 megabytes of skins and themes of the product they had bought and 50 megabytes elsewhere without having to purchase something or contribute something. Otherwise they are the same as group 1.
Group 3 users will be able to download an unlimited amount of content in the product they've purchased plus 100 megabytes elsewhere. They don't see quite as much ads as group 2.
Group 4 users will be able to download an unlimited amount of content. They see fewer ads. They get personal pages.
Group 5 users will be able to download premium skins. They see no ads. They have unlimited downloads. They get the WinCustomize skin browser. They get to download subscriber-only skins. Their posts, comments, etc. will have a graphic by them indicating that they are a subscriber.
Contributor Access. Anyone who submits a skin, theme, icon, wallpaper that gets made public is automatically promoted to Contributor level. They automatically gain new privileges on the site.
Subscriber-Only Skins. When a user who has Master access or higher submits a skin, a checkbox will appear that will indicate whether it is only available for subscribers or not. If checked, the skin is only available for subscribers for 30 days after its original create date (updates don't count). Eventually, skinners will be able to have a special link to their Affiliate page (if exists) http://www.stardock.com/affiliates.asp that if the person buys a subscription from their link the skin author will receive 20% of the revenue.
Long Term Goal
In the near-term, we want to get the site to be financially viable. A site with the level of visitation that WinCustomize currently has should have at least 3 full-time people dedicated to it with another 3 who provide help part-time (speaking in terms of web design, database development, ASP development, server management, community support, etc.). The site also needs at least 3 more servers which is where the money from the subscription drive is largely going to go towards.
Once revenue is more balanced under the current system through the changes we mentioned above, Stardock will hire people who will work on WinCustomize full-time to help support subscribers and the community in general. Some people have noted how much of a difference just having one person providing community support in the forums recently. Having people assigned to work on the site could make a big difference and help the site evolve into a place that isn't just a first-rate community but a place where skinners and artists can financially benefit from their work as well.
So the site isn't going to become some subscriber-only site. There will be a few more limits on non-subscribers and those without accounts or haven't purchased anything will start to see a lot mroe ads. But hopefully over time these changes will be enough to tilt the mighty ship on course. When you're dealing with millions of people each month, you only have to make changes that make a slight effect. Supporting the site can mean everything from buying a subscription to supporting our advertisers by visiting their sites through their ads to of course creating skins, themes, icons, wallpapers, etc. as well as participating on our forums and comments areas.