How to select the right WordPress theme

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.

@mattmedeiros I don’t think that anyone is doing anything to help that. More theme shops, more cheap themes, race to the bottom. @ClorithMJ

— Mario Peshev (@no_fear_inc) July 25, 2015

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.

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 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!

This content was originally published here.