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How to select the right WordPress theme


How to select the right WordPress theme

How to select the right WordPress theme

 
 
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This isn’t your typical how-to select a WordPress theme tutorial. Instead of comparing and contrasting features, we’re comparing and contrasting the expectations of a theme buyer and a theme seller.

This article should serve as a guide for buyers to understand where they should invest their money and for sellers to ease the pain points of selling themes in ruthless marketplace.

I’ve been selling themes for a while now, dating back to 2007, when I sold Drupal themes for the real estate market. Slocum Themes launched in late 2009 after I started my WordPress development shop, Slocum Studio.

Since then, we’ve been moderately successful with themes. The first year was abysmal, but as we’ve progressed, created new themes, and became more known in the WordPress space — it’s turned into a nice revenue stream for our overall business.

And that’s exactly how we (currently) look at our theme shop — as an add-on to the overall business. We’re not living off of theme sales, but we’re also not struggling to stay afloat just selling them. When it comes to marketing our themes, I take a very organic approach:

  • Content marketing
  • Podcasting
  • YouTube channel
  • Free distribution via WordPress.org

This nestles in nicely with our overall mission of being a client services company & a product company.

tl;dr Audio Version

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Current state of the theme business

new cars to theme sales

Everyone has the same inventory & features

“Commoditized. Cheap prices. Too much competition. Dominated by crapware.

Selling a WordPress theme is akin to selling a new car.

If you’re a Chevy dealer, chances are, there’s another Chevy dealer within 20-40 miles of you. You both, for the most part, have the same inventory available. If not, you could certainly get whatever it is you’re customer is looking for. Because of this, new cars, in terms of profit, are always the slimmest.

Everyone’s got ‘em and everyone’s looking to move ‘em. Even different brands have identical looks and features. Does this sound familiar yet?

For the buyer, you’ve got plenty of choices — and that’s great. It also means prices should stay pretty low — and they are. If you complain about a $59 purchase for a website that powers your business, dive into what should be right up your alley, Building Websites All-in-one for Dummies. This 747-page read is what you’ll have to plough through to get a better understanding of what went into building a theme. That and over a decade of learning & improving the craft.

What is a theme?

Our Modern Business theme in .org

Our Modern Business theme in .org

Before we go too far, let’s define what a theme actually is.

It’s the presentational layer of your project’s content, data, and media across many devices. Most commonly presented as a marketing or presentational brochure and increasingly becoming a way to present products for sale.

It’s the pretty front-end of your website.

What about the concept of a theme or the utility, as it were?

For me, it’s very much the essence of the 80/20 rule. Something that is going to accelerate a project 80% of the way, with very little effort and at an affordable cost as it relates to the overall budget. A theme should be a fraction of your overall budget, while you spend the rest on expanding it, consulting, and building out the website.

That’s the final 20%  and the phase that is sorely overlooked.

When adapting a theme to your needs, that last mile is always the most challenging, so don’t expect it to go as smoothly as the first 80%. But this isn’t new to you, this is life:

  • Losing the last 15 pounds on a diet is always the hardest.
  • Getting an A+ isn’t easy as easy a B-.
  • Perfecting your credit score is nearly impossible.

Back to the car analogy, you can’t add a second set of doors to a 2-door coupe. It just wasn’t built that way. You also can’t order a new color that doesn’t come from the manufacturer. They already determined the best available colors for that vehicle, in that model year.

A theme is a great starting point for your project’s first iteration of an online presence. As your needs and audience change, you must reinvest and build something that meets your goals. A theme is either built as a generic use-case or to serve a specific niche vertical. In either case, it doesn’t deliver 100% on your needs, across the board.

Often, buyers get custom development and ready-made themes confused — and it’s not the same. If you find yourself forcing a theme to do something other than what it was naturally inspired to do — find another theme.

Remember, there are plenty.

Otherwise, asses your goals and understand what hinges on getting the perfect WordPress website for your business. If the most basic requirement is to generate tens-of-thousands in revenue annually, go custom. Don’t try and force a square peg into a round hole.

How to choose a WordPress theme (and provider)

You shouldn’t consider purchasing a theme without considering who you are purchasing from.

If you travel in the same circles as I do, there’s a tendency to blame the sellers for pricing their themes too low. As to say, we’re blaming other shops for the slim margins which in turn, makes it hard to survive on theme sales alone.

Allegedly, this causes the market to shift to more inexpensive or even free themes.

While I don’t disagree with that, I won’t blame a seller’s price point, but I will blame their lack of quality and disregard of the long-term for both the customer and their own product. Let’s explore this:

On Theme Prices

Cheap themes aren’t necessarily bad for us.

What does erode the market is when theme companies cannot or do not offer up long-term support for the customer. Because they don’t have strong profits or large volume of sales, they cannot afford to operate as a well-rounded business.

Bottom line: they aren’t making enough money.

My opinion is, the $59 – $129 theme is right where the market needs it to be. No more, no less for just the theme. 

“But, where’s the $1,000 theme?!”

It’s coming as is our WordPress industrial revolution.

If the REST API can get baked into core (and arguably even if it doesn’t), we’re going to see more advanced themes for sale. Only when WordPress themes become more advanced, expanding on the presentational layer of content, data, and media will we see the rise of theme prices as we know them now.

I once turned a $59 theme sale into an $18,000 custom project? More on this:

On Theme business models

Sellers, who are not making the profits they had once hoped for, need to take a closer look at their business model.

For example, we offer a Hassle-free theme setup and install service at Slocum Themes. This sets expectations in a few ways:

  • We don’t do this for free in our standard support agreement
  • There’s more to setting up the perfect WordPress website than installing the theme
  • It’s still not that easy to do for a beginner
  • “Oh, there’s more to buy from you?” (my favorite)

I read a lot of complaints from theme authors and shops that support for their product is drowning them. The enduser doesn’t understand how to use WordPress and they have ridiculous expectations from the seller.

We experienced that too, and we dealt with them by expanding our offerings.

You know how new car dealers make money on those slim margins? They sell extended warranties, accessories, or they sell them a certified car that no other dealer has, for greater profit. Like a unique plugin, perhaps. (read: Like how we offer Conductor plugin)

Many theme authors hate to sell. They hate to upsell. They still, to this day, are plagued by the “If I build it, they will come syndrome.

So, how did I upsell a $59 theme to an $18,000 custom project? It’s easy, let’s look at the tiered offerings:

  • Free: Customer downloads the theme and installs it themselves. No help or direct support from us.
  • $59: Purchase the theme, receive e-mail based support based on an annual recurring subscription.
  • $59 + $99: Purchase the theme and our basic setup service. We’ll get it setup in 48 hours looking like the demo, with your logo uploaded.
  • $59 + $997: Purchase a theme and have us setup a membership or e-commerce site for your company. Includes 1 hour of phone based training, configuring the site for content marketing, analytics integration, lead capture and e-commerce.
  • Custom: Our agency work starts at $10k. When we can demonstrate that to being the equivalent of 10 times (if not more) of the work it takes over our $997 package above — it starts to click with your customer.

Of course, you have to back that up with a portfolio of accomplished projects and then you’ve got yourself a winning strategy of uspelling and moving a customer up channel into a better product.

Not every customer is price conscious, but when dealt with the wrong information, they assume $59 is the way to go. The way it “should” be.

Mind the, “into a better product,” bit.

If my $18k customer purchased the $59 theme or even our $997 membership setup fee — it’s the wrong product fit for them. It doesn’t delver on their needs or expectation. Just because something is affordable, doesn’t make it the right choice for a customer. I don’t select doctors based on price.

As a theme seller, it’s adapt or die.

Unless you are trying to hit Unicorn status of a theme, something that still takes a stroke of luck to achieve on WordPress.org or Envato — start with a solid profitable business plan first. Build a good product, and offer paid services around that product. Put yourself in a position to be sustainable for your customers and your business goals.

Times are changing and this holding pattern is going to take some out of the box thinking until the next revolution hits.

On the long-term support

Proverbial thinking about the future photo.

Proverbial thinking about the future photo.

All of this thinking boils down to the seller’s vision of longevity. For their business, for their product, and for their customer.

I don’t know about you (sellers), but I want to be around in 5 years to support customers who purchased a theme from me. I can’t do that if I’m not thinking about the future — for both buyer & seller.

As I said earlier, this is where I lay the blame on sellers “doing it wrong.” There are theme shops that do not care to follow core WordPress coding practices that ultimately hurt the experience of using the beloved open source project, or worse, leave the customer vulnerable to attack.

This molds both sides of the coin: customers that feel burned from the purchase or customers that now realize, they got what they paid for.

This usually leads to customers giving up on WordPress as a whole, while others realize they have to spend more money and invest in a professional agency or consultant.The good news? I’m beginning to see more of the latter in my world.

Organizations that went the cheap route are now realizing they should have invested more from the get go. Again, not entirely their fault, but the fault of the overall marketing message at large:

“A WordPress theme that can do anything you want, with 600+ fonts, for just $49! Get going in minutes!”

It’s more likely this statement leads to bloated code structure and a boat load of features that are stagnant, confusing and un-used by the end user. In the end, the overall experience would have been saved had they known a better product existed, even at a higher price point.

Which brings us to the last piece of the puzzle, technical debt.

Or you can also read it as: shit code.

I’m not here to argue Sass vs LESS. I’m talking code that is slow, interfaces that suck, and the duct tape it’s all held together with.

The worst part is, your average buyer doesn’t realize it until it’s too late. Until they get hacked or they finally begin some web marketing work and notice the site takes 17 seconds to load a single page. Then the vicious cycle begins! They request support, only to realize the author doesn’t provide any or no longer exists.

Check your plugins or your host, the seller says.

The buyer is beside themselves. What looked like a way to start a company site for under $100 and a 6-pack, is now WordPress’ fault. I thought this WordPress stuff was going to be easy!

They take to jobs.wordpress.net looking to take out their frustrations in a job post, only to offend anyone that’s even remotely qualified to reply:

“I need an easy fix to my menu on mobile. Dear developer, I’m looking for someone to fix my mobile navigation on my company’s website. It shouldn’t take long, it’s just not working and my logo is bleeding into it. Please respond with how much it will be to fix.”

Yeah right.

When in fact, the author should have never given you the ability to change that specific CSS or layouts for the theme. Even if they did, they should have browser tested to some degree or fully-understand the downside to that option. I’m not saying we can solve for every instance, but the less control we give to non-designers, the better.

Provide solutions that won’t lead someone to break the site, but continue to deliver on more broadstroke customizations. Write code that can stand up to the test of WordPress backwards compatibility and keep an eye on the roadmap. At Slocum Themes, we’re always testing against nightly builds of WordPress.

In the end, if you can’t, provide some form of paid valuable support service to maintain and support the user — it’s not going to be pleasant for anyone.

Finally, on selecting a WordPress theme

Made me laugh.

Made me laugh.

Everything, including free, comes at a cost.

When recently replacing a busted exterior faucet on my home, I went to Home Depot and spent $50 on parts. Only to realize, I don’t have a small torch to heat up and remove the old soldered pipe. Only to realize further, I can’t find my hacksaw to cut the new PVC pipe.

Maybe I should have just hired a professional to get it done for me, it probably would have cost me less. I ask that both parties, buyers & sellers, think this way:

Theme buyers, please don’t expect the world for $59.

Expect that you’ll get a well-coded WordPress theme that will continue to be supported for the life of your support license agreement. However, don’t expect your theme vendor to login and configure your website while troubleshooting the 18 plugins you installed previously.

Theme sellers, don’t expect your customer to be fully-knowledgeable on WordPress or how you setup your options panel — they don’t do this for a living.

Build a product that works well, isn’t overly complicated and solves a particular need. Go further and have some reasonably priced support plan in place for when the time comes and please find new ways to stay profitable.

The more profitable theme shops that stand the test of time, the better for all of us.

A bonus for theme sellers

Selling themes is more turbulent than ever.

From overwhelming GPL license debates (and lawsuits) to shops skyrocketing in revenue, leaving you to wonder — how will I compete?

If you listen to the Twitter chatter, you will see people mention “doing things the WordPress way.” Often, it’s used in a snarky way to separate the “I know what I’m doing” crowd from the noobies.

First, ask yourself, do you want to be accepted into the community? Is this important to your soul and not just your business?

It can be a scary launching your first product. There will always be naysayers — ignore them. There will be people that don’t like your designs — ignore them. There will be people that say you charge too much — ignore them.

Do you want acceptance or results?

I heard Michael Port say that on a podcast and I fell in love with it. It rings true in the WordPress space. So many of of us strive to do it the “WordPress way”, but what is that, exactly? Who says we have to follow the rules? I don’t mean break the law, but to challenge the status quo.

I want results.

Like this post? I’m launching a new product called Julep. It’s an easy way to make images a little more fun in WordPress. Check it out and join the upcoming beta list!

Listen to this Episode

18 Comments

  1. Ionut on July 28, 2015 at 3:49 pm

    Hey Matt,

    Congrats for the article! However I didn’t came here just to say that, there is a thing where I disagree : on $499 – $1000 themes.

    I am actually working on a price your theme/state of WordPress theme market article and while writing it I realised that selling a GPL theme for $1000 ( just the product, no support ) is not something that can be done, or can’t be done in the long term, how GPL work will make things too tempting.

    For example let’s say you have the choice to get a theme for $1000 or the same theme for free, what you will do ? If you get it for free, you are covered by GPL, so is completely ok ( saying is not because this or that is just hypocrisy ), you are a developer, so you don’t really need support, why to pay $1000 ?

    Thanks!

    • Matt on July 28, 2015 at 5:24 pm

      Ionut,

      I always love when you stop by, so thanks for that 🙂

      You seem to be making my point. I don’t think you can sell a 499 – 999 theme right now, especially without support and with a pure GPL flavor in the wild. You’re right, it’s just not going to happen and the visitor will always take free.

      That said, if WordPress begins to evolve (REST API) into new areas (again, just speculating) like application layers or specific content + data displays — think government, big data, or big media — I think that’s where the larger retail price hides. Sure you can argue there will always be an enterprise custom install or SLA attached to that, but there’s always someone at the bottom of THAT funnel, looking to onboard at the $1k mark. Granted, they won’t sell at the volume of Zerif, but maybe just as profitable?

      I’m excited to read your post — you are arguably the most successful shop I know of doing the freemium thing!

  2. Ahmad Awais on July 28, 2015 at 10:47 pm

    Hey Matt,

    Nice read.

    Theme pricing is an issue, I somehow agree with Ionut. But there is one concern that is deadly. I mean, I want to make themes which are meant only for one niche and are good for one purpose only. Not because it may take less time in building such a theme, but because it will be the right thing to do.

    But you cannot really do that anymore, selling themes on your own is not that lucrative when compared with selling them on ThemeForest (At least what I have experienced after 4 years in theme industry). ThemeForest, on the other hand, is not really interested in niche themes.

    That means, even when you try to create niche themes, they don’t accept it unless it has a multi-demo, multi-layout structure to compete with the present market. Then there need to be loads of premium plugins packed with the theme for free. Otherwise, the theme sales won’t really skyrocket, not in the normal scenario (exceptions are always there).

    So a $58 theme with a good number of demos and “Unlimited” feature crapware is what sells. It is not even TF’s fault, if they stop supporting such themes, a new market will cater them and TF will lose a big chunk of revenue.

    This mess is something which is literally polluting the theme space and it is just not the case with Plugins. Even at CodeCanyon you can find add-on plugins for a major plugin (I bet no one has ever offered one major plugin with all the add-ons and 5 premium WP themes that support the plugin; all in $58. Hell it even sounds ridiculous).

    • Matt on July 29, 2015 at 12:04 pm

      I have a few threads of thought here:

      #1. This is why I wish .org (or even Matt/Automattic) would give us a better marketplace. Not just for increasing sales, but to offer VERIFIED WordPress theme developers. Give me a verified badge on WordPress.org.

      #2. In re: to selling themes not being so lucrative. I agree. And I feel you have to ask yourself what you want your business model to be.

      For example, we don’t win awards (yet) for the designs of our themes. Quite frankly, we’re not trying to. We build what works for us and the client base we serve and that’s it. Consequently, it’s probably why we never struck it rich in the theme space — but that’s okay — I’m building a services business too.

      So you need to ask yourself, do I want to chase the revenue of theme sales alone OR build a more well rounded business. As I mentioned offering services and other product for sale.

      With 2 days of writing this post, ThemeZilla and WPLift have announced services. Glad to see I’m thinking straight.

  3. Athlone on July 29, 2015 at 1:26 am

    I agree completely with most of what you’ve written. Often my clients expect unrealistic services for (next to) nothing. And it’s my fault if they do. I’ve started to lay out value added services for upselling and it works.

    I’m the one to blame if I get swamped with support that cannot be sustained. Thanks for the article. It’s given me further food for thought.

    • Matt on July 29, 2015 at 12:04 pm

      That’s great to hear! It’s why I love the services market, you can always move up the market 🙂

  4. Dj on July 29, 2015 at 2:57 am

    Matt,

    Thank you for the post.

    It looks convincing when you say “Commoditized. Cheap prices. Too much competition. Dominated by crapware.” I should without any doubt agree with this. However, what alternatives do you suggest for a beginner in this business?

    Thanks.

    • Matt on July 29, 2015 at 12:08 pm

      Hi Dj –

      Thanks for stopping by! This is a great question and one that I should probably do another post on — or a part 2 to this.

      Of course, I’m bias to my own products, but I would start by researching the companies you’re interested in choosing.

      Do they really know their stuff?
      Do they have the right tools for you AND your workflow?
      Will you get good support from them?
      Do they have the support channels you need to cater to your business?

      We offer themes and a WordPress builder plugin. In our own agency work, these tools serve as the foundation to our projects. We know how to work with them, we trust the code (obviously) and we know it won’t melt out client’s brain to use them.

      You need to find a toolkit that works great for you — that’s my best advice. Flesh out the company a bit and get to know them. Happy to answer any other questions you might have.

  5. Lisa on July 29, 2015 at 8:24 am

    -Did you create the featured image+text headline using julep?
    -While I normally listen on itunes, it’s also nice to have the text available as a transcript of the audio.

    • Matt on July 29, 2015 at 12:08 pm

      I wish 🙂

      Thanks, creating a monologue is a bit new here!

  6. Carrie Dils on July 29, 2015 at 9:42 am

    Hey Matt,

    I always enjoy your “proverbial thinking about the future” conversations. In some ways, I think posts like this are preaching to the choir, but I’m glad you’re discussing it.

    I love this:

    Often, buyers get custom development and ready-made themes confused — and it’s not the same. If you find yourself forcing a theme to do something other than what it was naturally inspired to do — find another theme.

    I wrote a post on the subject awhile back (Premium WordPress Themes: The Antithesis of Custom Themes). I was preaching to the choir, too, but I couldn’t help myself.

    You’re so spot on about creating a sustainable business model. Cheap themes are great, but a theme seller that’s not around to offer support will just frustrate the dickens out of customers. On the other hand, overly-priced themes distribute the burden of support costs across all customers (when it’s usually < 10% of customers who run up support costs). I like your suggestion of offering varying service levels around your theme that so customers have the choice to buy what suits their needs best. One size absolutely does not fit all.

    Great article. Keep up the proverbial future thinking.

    Carrie

    • Matt on July 29, 2015 at 12:38 pm

      Thanks for gracing us, Carrie!

      I agree with you on the choir part and that’s why I think (in this case) the education starts from the bottom up. WordPress agencies and consultants need to express the different levels of licensing and products they are using.

      A basic example, the $500 website:

      Instead of pricing a project with the theme purchase included, price it $59 for the theme + $500 for the service portion. If the customer thinks that a consultant built an entire website from scratch at the low-price of $500, that’s a problem for future expectation.

      It should be framed as, $59 for a pre-built theme and then $500 for X,Y,Z customization services. Changing colors, branding, plugin install. Everything off-the-shelf and not hand-crafted.

  7. David on July 30, 2015 at 12:57 am

    The issue is developers are not business people, there coders who know nothing of how to run a business. I am a business person I’m not a coder, my business was voted top 25 in the country in my sector. I was recently talking to is the largest downloaded wp author of all time 1.8 million installs, he told me support is killing his business. I told him that’s his fault and not only did he create this problem he is choosing to leave himself in this position by not deploying the right solutions to fix the issue….

    What he needs to do is make crystal clear the exact type (in specific detail) of support that comes with the purchase, just having some bland non descriptive “comes with email support” is not good enough. The user thinks that any of their questions “are support”, so you need to be so clear on having the right explanation as to what is and isn’t covered. You also need to test your explanation with non wp users to see if they understand your explanations prior to release.

    Then you need to have correct highly detailed training documentation/videos that stop basic support tickets. Get pre made videos from someone like wp101, they have a package that allows you to white label for your customers, Yoast uses them. you don’t have to maintain them either.

    I had a fight with studio press, as there theme tutorials were not accurate and incomplete, they kept telling me time and time again there correct, until i took a camtasia video showing the errors, 2 months later all their tutorials were re done. I love studio press stuff and in 100 updates I have never had an issue across all installs of their work.

    The problem they had and devs have in general is you forget the most basic steps needed to install and get going for a beginner, You also need to get some noob to sit in front of you (like me hahahah) and try to use your tutorial to achieve the result that the customer thinks they can get from buying your theme. Then you will have a mini focus group showing you exactly how complex it is for a noob to get going with wp and whether or not your documentation has accurately explained what they can or can’t achieve with your product.

    Get together with a few other theme devs and find a person who you all can employ to for say 5 hours a week each to manage your basic support tickets and take the pressure off you, if you don’t like dealing with people you won’t give good support, then you start to alienate your customer as they pick up on the fact you’re not happy providing them with support.

    Sell packages that are going to help both you and the consumer move forward in the right direction , for instance we don’t allow any user to self host or manage their install, ever, it’s not eve negotiable at all. the package we sell is a fully maintained, that includes 12 mths full warranty, backup and all updates, the customer doesn’t have access to it at all. if they want changes we allow a certain amount of time each month in the package so we can do the updates, they can of course post etc but no admin access, this means we do the install once and never have problems. Sure you won’t sell as many themes but you then don’t have the issues that come with the cheap sales, sell yourself as a full service agency that allows the user to focus on running shier business and making money.

    This is a general explanation of how to fix the issues , but you hopefully will understand my concept

    • Matt on July 30, 2015 at 7:37 am

      David

      I can’t thank you enough for this comment. You are spot on from the buyers perspective and how difficult it is for someone that doesn’t do this for a living.

      Sure it looks easy, but it’s because we do this for a living. And I couldn’t agree more with making it 100 percent clear, what you’re actually getting from email support.

      I guess the question is, would you pay more for support ?

  8. Arjun Singh Thakuri on July 31, 2015 at 3:32 am

    Hey Matt,
    I agree everything you wrote on this blog. Sellers should really take account of THE LONG-TERM SUPPORT…
    Thanks!

    • Matt on August 4, 2015 at 10:47 pm

      Thanks, Arjun 🙂

  9. jonathan on August 4, 2015 at 10:43 pm

    Hi, Matt. I loved the last podcast about themes. Your reply to a commit I feel is spot on

    “This is why I wish .org (or even Matt/Automattic) would give us a better marketplace. Not just for increasing sales, but to offer VERIFIED WordPress theme developers. Give me a verified badge on WordPress.org.”

    I just don’t myself have any real idea why Automattic won’t do this. The only idea I have is that they feel it would be too much of direct competition to their on WordPress.com whats you thoughts about this Matt?

    Jonathan

    • Matt on August 4, 2015 at 10:48 pm

      Thanks for stopping by, Jonathan.

      I can only think that the .org repo isn’t on their radar. It’s left to the community organizers and the Review Team to make these suggestions. They are, however, introducing theme category tags which is a small step into organizing a user’s search.

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