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Chris Wallace

Partner & Creative Director @ Lift UX

Are WordPress Themes a Commodity?

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There are a growing number of WordPress minds drawing the conclusion that the WordPress theme market has reached commoditization. The general consensus is that themes are easy to acquire or build and lack differentiation in a saturated market. Being a theme developer, I agree with this line of thought and want to explain why this has happened and what themers should do to create a sustainable business with WordPress themes.

The Real Problem

One of the biggest issues I see with WordPress theme companies is that themes are being marketed to the wrong people in the wrong way. David Perel wrote a post about themes becoming a commodity and I certainly agree with him when talking about your run-of-the-mill e-commerce, business or blog theme. Developers create a theme, release it, move on to the next one and enter into a maintenance cycle. That means they no longer write blog posts about it, tweet about it, share anything of any kind about it, or develop new features other than staying compatible with future version of WordPress. Basically, they act as if the product no longer exists.

If you look at themes and plugins that have strong sales month-over-month, it is because they are constantly being developed, are marketed strongly toward very specific users, and serve a purpose that can’t be easily matched. In many cases, a loss leader like free design assets or a blog that drives high amounts of targeted traffic helps grow an audience that will actually buy.

[aesop_quote background=”#51a898″ text=”#ffffff” width=”100%” align=”center” size=”2″ quote=”A rolling stone gathers no moss.” cite=”Wise Person” parallax=”on” direction=”left”]

In my experience as a WordPress theme developer human, I have come to understand one thing very well. If you don’t invest time and energy into something, it will die. Sometimes it will die slowly, other times quickly, but it will die eventually. This is true about personal relationships as well as business. After all, if your potential customers don’t know about your product and you don’t actively seek them out, how will people know it solves a problem for them? Why wouldn’t someone pick out a free theme from WordPress.org if it solves their problems?

Let’s all just admit the truth about WordPress theme developers and most people in general: you suck at marketing. This is not new information. Most people who haven’t studied marketing or spent a lot of time doing it generally don’t understand the importance of brand positioning, content marketing, or product/market fit.

If you want to be successful in the WordPress theme industry, you need to have a better strategy behind releasing themes other than, “Well, I noticed e-commerce themes were popular so I figured I would make one, too.” There is much more to building a product than just seeing someone else succeed with a product and immediately copying their idea. As a side note, banking on being in the “Newest Items” section on ThemeForest for a week isn’t a great strategy for sustained sales growth.

Problem #2: Everyone is a Design Expert

Beauty isn’t a feature unless your customer appreciates the aesthetics of a theme. Most people don’t know the differences between themes with poor and great typography. Most people don’t have a clue that design is important, nor do they realize that design can evoke different emotions and give off a certain vibe. Some people are naturally gifted at recognizing good design but it is important to understand that most people are perfectly content using a free theme that hasn’t been updated in 3 years as long as it serves their needs well.

WordPress themes are a lot like cars. Some are faster than others. Some are prettier than others. Some have a lot of buttons and controls. Some look like 1975 sharted all over them. But if it won’t take the user where they need to go, they’ll find one that will. If one theme offers real value over another and is a reasonable price to pay, users will buy it.

Find a Niche and Hit It Hard

The main problem with commercial WordPress theme shops is that they’re not finding a niche and consistently placing products that solve problems in their hands.

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
– Another Smart Person

There are a few theme companies out there that absolutely crush when it comes to truly serving a niche market and serving them damn well. The first is Astoundify. They offer full end-to-end solutions with WordPress, not just WordPress themes. You need a theme marketplace? They got you covered. Need a crowd-funding website? You’re good. Need to showcase your new iPhone app? It’s done.

They’re selling solutions, not WordPress themes. They take you from point A to point Z. This is what a theme company should be interested in: solving problems with no easy solution.

The second company that absolutely crushes is ThemeZilla. In a nutshell, they offer themes for designers to help you get up and running with a blog or portfolio. They have some general purpose themes, but for the most part, they cater to an audience of designers. Orman Clark also runs Premium Pixels, giving away free design files in order to gain traffic and trust for his WordPress themes. Using a loss leader with his freebie business, he generates traffic to his commercial products. This relationship works well because designers need free design assets for projects and they also want a beautiful blog or portfolio, which is a very simple connection to make.

What We’re Doing at UpThemes

Along with our recent shift to simplicity in our theme development, we’re beginning to focus on a very specific niche and develop a detailed strategy for reaching it effectively. If you take a peek at our current theme roster, you may be able to determine what that niche is. We have a formal announcement coming up that will shed some light on this direction and are very excited about the shift in strategy.

My Advice to Fellow Themers

Build products that satisfy an unmet need. Create a strategy for reaching them constantly and effectively and you will do well. The things we can do appear to be magic to people who don’t understand them. There’s no reason to copy themes that already serve a specific purpose. Make something people need and love that you think will change the world, even in a small way.

Comments

I agree with David on guerrilla marketing and advertising. That’s just hard stuff. Like you say, theme developers aren’t very good at it in general and I’d like to learn more personally. Any recommendations?

The need to release a new theme every 30 days surprised me. Our first church theme has had consistent sales from its launch eight months ago. It’s like the graph spiked upward then got stuck on a plateau. I don’t think we could release a new theme every 30 days without a large team and I’m glad we don’t have to! I suspect other very specific niches work similarly.

I think you nailed it with niches.

Competing with 1,000 similar themes must take a herculean effort. If you’re going to pick a niche, business, portfolio, photography, e-commerce and general blogs may not be the best choices. Those might have been easy to sell three or more years ago but not today. They’re saturated. Niches like churches, hotels and schools might be a better option today. I’m sure there are dozens of others.

I see UpThemes has been playing with multiple niches. Other shops do it too. My thought on multiple niches is, what happens when you’re catering to 10+ niches? You’re an expert at ten things. How hard does that become to maintain? How big does your team need to be? What if you can’t keep up with the needs of all these different groups? Why not focus on one niche…

Which makes me wonder, Chris, what is this one niche you’re going to switch focus to? Whatever it is (and I have my suspicion), it sounds like a great plan to go into hyper-focus mode. You’ll only have to deal with a few friendly competitors / colleagues instead of a whole flotilla of battleships. At least until WordPress powers 75% of the web!

chriswallace says:

Steven,

I think you know the direction 😉 Also, there will be an announcement that contains more than just the strategy shift so keep your eyes peeled for that. It will probably happen next week or so.

I think your comment about serving too many niches can be too, but if you can get the content marketing right, it doesn’t really matter. If there is a demand and your product has channels in which in can be found by these niches, they will buy due to a lack of competition.

Additionally, being a seller on WordPress.com benefits us greatly (for now) because it is an insulated market, meaning there are plenty of buyers but only a few sellers at the moment. My guess is that market will start to dry as more theme shops are accepted into the marketplace, but for now it remains a good place to sell themes.

Thanks for your detailed comment.

oboxdavid says:

Great post Chris. You bring up some good points however I’d like to also mention that the affects of marketing an existing theme do not give the returns many would expect.

I like to think that Obox isn’t too bad at marketing – otherwise we wouldn’t be where we are today – however for the life of me I cannot get a theme that’s older than 3 months to justify time and money spent on marketing it.

Turns out we are not the only ones who are in that boat, more than one successful theme co has confirmed the same thing (including Astoundify).

I totally agree that theme co’s should start focussing on a niche which needs nurturing. In our case our theme called ‘Ambition’ does really well in the sports segment. Despite all that though, a business, ecommerce or portfolio theme still make the chunk of most theme co’s revenue.

Until those segments die down we will continue to see copy-cat themes from the majority of companies.

chriswallace says:

I definitely agree with you, David. Don’t get me wrong. I think what you’re seeing is serious over-saturation in the market for general purpose themes. I think the themes and theme shops that are standing out the most right now are the ones who differentiate their product on the WordPress admin side, not just the design on the front-end. Shops like Headway, Pagelines, and Elegant Themes (with their latest “drag-and-drop” theme, Divi) do well with the “drag-and-drop page layout” DIY approach. They require no coding knowledge and they only have to buy and learn one theme. That’s a plus for most people. Thanks for your comment, I definitely appreciate the conversation.

Chris, I was literally just talking to someone about this yesterday.

There are so many theme shops that are dying that slow death you described, and don’t even realize it, and probably won’t until it’s too late.

I hope every theme author takes 3 minutes out of their day to read this today

chriswallace says:

Chris,

Definitely. I would argue with your point about theme shops not realizing it. When sales shrink, they definitely notice. Not every can do something to reverse the trend, though.

Thanks for reading!

[…] you missed it, today Chris Wallace wrote a great piece on WordPress themes, as a response to another great article on the subject from the co-founder of Obox […]

[…] Commodification of WordPress Themes […]

Great read.

We use a combination of marketing, freemium, and other channels to drive sales at CyberChimps but I fear there are other factors in the market right now that are responsible for the declines many theme shops are seeing.

WordPress as a whole seems to be slowing down this year, and if you look at traffic rankings for WordPress.org and WordPress.com we have hit a plateau, possibly even a decline. Last year everything peaked, and so far this year everyone I’ve talked to outside specific niche markets is in a decline.

This is a WordPress problem, not just a theme problem. One obvious factor is search rankings, Google seems to be punishing WordPress installs, and is barely counting most of the back links to WordPress based websites now including .com and .org. They now consider most of them to be spam. Panda 4.0 was just released a week ago and the impact on WordPress installs has been immediate. We’re all being devalued in search results, even WordPress itself.

As for marketing, this too is a WordPress Foundation and Automattic problem. “WordPress” has no marketing.

WordPress.org is a joke, it is horribly laid out and duct taped together. The site still isn’t even responsive, and when we tried to help work on it when they open sourced the site last year there was too much red tape to accomplish anything.

Meanwhile, Automattic doesn’t appear to have a marketing department. There’s no product placement happening, no advertising being run, no marketing campaigns, there’s not even blog posts detailing all the changes they’ve made recently. I can’t even tell you what half the new features are on WordPress.com this year are because the navigation of the site is nearly unusable and it would take hours to go through everything they’ve changed lately.

WordPress needs to mature and focus on growth or the entire ecosystem is going to collapse. WordPress as a platform needs to market itself correctly for it’s continued growth, and the burden shouldn’t be on theme shop owners to do so. While I’m eternally grateful for everything WordPress has provided for myself and my company, I have some serious concerns right now on its continued growth.

Every plugin and theme released on .org is built on top of an ancient website that is borderline operational, the entire ecosystem is a lot more fragile than most people realize and I think what we are all seeing right now in the theme market is early indication that something much larger is going on in the greater community.

I am still hopeful for the future of WordPress, but it is do or die right now for the entire ecosystem, and theme shops are simply the frontline.

Thanks for the comment (or perhaps mini-essay) Trent! I remember meeting you back at WordCamp San Francisco many years ago. I’m glad to see you are trying to weather the storm and figure out how to better reach the WordPress market rather than simply giving up. If we can all work through this and figure out a better way to reach people, our customers and WordPress will benefit in the long run.

Trent you just nailed it man.

For a platform that runs on 20+% of the internet, you’d think they would market their products and ecosystem a lot better.

You have SqaureSpace running SuperBowl commercials, and WordPress.org as much as I love it, seems to not have a clue in the marketing department.

A lot of good points in here to think about

[…] Theme developers “suck at marketing” and need to find a niche and “hit it hard,” so says Chris Wallace from UpThemes who has weighed into the debate about WordPress themes as a commodity in response to a post by Obox […]

[…] commodity? Theme developers “suck at marketing” and need to find a niche and “hit it hard,” so says Chris Wallace from UpThemes who has weighed into the debate about WordPress themes as a commodity in response to a post by Obox […]

[…] commodity? Theme developers “suck at marketing” and need to find a niche and “hit it hard,” so says Chris Wallace from UpThemes who has weighed into the debate about WordPress themes as a commodity in response to a post by Obox […]

[…] This isn’t the only news you should expect from UpThemes. They’ve made some bold decisions in the last year or so; moves that I think are necessary in the changing theme landscape. Chris also has written an interesting take on themes on his blog. […]

[…] continues to increase. Meanwhile, there are those in the WordPress community who think themes have become a commodity. With WordPress now over 10 years old, there are plenty of free and commercial themes to choose […]

[…] continues to increase. Meanwhile, there are those in the WordPress community who think themes have become a commodity. With WordPress now over 10 years old, there are plenty of free and commercial themes to choose […]

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