Are WordPress Themes a Commodity?

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.

A rolling stone gathers no moss. Wise Person

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.

About Chris Wallace

I am a Christian, a husband, a father, and a business owner. A die-hard St. Louis Cardinals and Blues fan, I like to share my experiences in the WordPress theme and plugin market and other business topics.

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