We recently entered the premium WordPress theme marketplace to test the waters on how it could potentially add to our passive revenue stream. I knew that stepping outside of our comfort zone, as a creative studio who primarily works on a one to one basis with clients, into mass market customer service would not be an easy process.
Our client work is generally centered around finding a particular solution to a very particular goal. Designing, developing and deploying a premium theme, for high volume consumption, would require trying to imagine as many scenarios as possible with just as many solutions. The experience, thus far, has been incredibly eye opening and what we have learned about We Are Pixel8, as WordPress theme designers and developers, has been immeasurable.
But, there has been something that has been troubling me as of late. In an effort to distinguish and market themselves amongst the vast sea of providers, there is a prevailing trend of over bloating premium themes with built in options that more than likely can, and should, be left to a plugin.
Before you start roaring that We Are Pixel8 is guilty of the same crime, I will politely cut you off there and agree 100%. This post is not meant to be an indictment of any developer’s practice. In fact, this is more like a public statement about We Are Pixel8’s stance on the matter and how we intend to move forward.
If you are a proficient WordPress or PHP developer, and have created custom solutions for your themes without plugins, my hat is off to you. At the end of the day, if your methodology works for you, and your customers are satisfied with your product, then you will probably consider what I have to say here to not be applicable.
Is a Premium Theme Really Premium if it Relies on Plugins?
From what I can tell, one of the established arguments for differentiating a premium theme from a free one is the theme’s dependency on plugins. This distinct thesis centers around the conclusion that free themes come with very few to no options while premium themes are packed with options galore.
I find this definition a bit narrow, if not constraining. The questions we needed to ask ourselves were,
What is We Are Pixel8’s description of a premium theme and, secondly, what will our customers expect when purchasing one of our themes?
Our definition of a premium WordPress theme is one that is of the highest design quality, developed solely with best current WordPress theme development practices, semantically coded with current W3C web standards and provides impeccable customer support. We also believe that this is what is expected by the customer when they purchase one of products. Though a premium theme customer is not a direct We Are Pixel8 client, they should receive the same levels of service regardless.
You can argue that this should all be implicit when downloading a freely available theme. But, a customer is not guaranteed all of these services in a free theme and cannot rightfully expect said free theme to meet or exceed these services. Once a customer forks over their hard earned cash for one of our themes, all of these services are automatically explicit.
…theme options are nothing more than a marketing ploy on all of our parts to sell more product
Now, with our definition of a premium theme in mind, I return to the argument that theme options define a premium theme. I really don’t think so. In fact, I am beginning to believe that theme options are nothing more than a marketing ploy on all of our parts to sell more product. Often times, they are add-ons that do very little, like adding Google Analytics to the footer, but are highly touted.
We took a moment to objectively look at each of the theme options we were offering in one of our premium themes and asked this one question,
Are our theme options a necessity for the user to extend the functionality of the product or have we made the user wholly dependent upon our theme? In some cases, the answer was the latter and we needed to rethink our theme options and the potential disservice we are doing to our customers.
A perfect example would be our Periodic theme. When first released, we thought the user would find an option for adding social networking scripts, via a theme option, beneficial. We built in options for Twitter, Facebook Like, Google Buzz, Digg and StumbleUpon. First, we were deciding which scripts would be important to a user which was pure hubris on our part. Secondly, scripts like Facebook Like continue to change, in terms of how that are added to web pages, which meant we would have to release updates every time this happened which was not optimal on our end or the customers. Lastly, we all know what happened with Google Buzz and its inclusion was superfluous in the end.
With the WordPress plugin repository full of viable solutions for this very task, we should have left well enough alone and allowed the user to decide what was important to them. Did our inclusion of this particular option help us sell more themes? It’s possible but I cannot say for certain. What I will say is that this option makes the user dependent upon Periodic, if activated. When the user inevitably changed themes, they would need to find a new solution for social networking sharing scripts.
Is that a bad thing? Yes. The inexperienced WordPress user will not be aware of this fact and that is simply a bad business practice. Could we circumvent this with a message stating upfront what happens when changing theme? Again, yes, but why include the option if it comes with this caveat?
Theme Options = Superior Development Skills
I once had a fellow developer tell me that,
If you are depending on plugins, you shouldn’t consider yourself a theme developer. Aside from being highly offended by the comment, I found the notion that a true theme developer must have superior PHP skills to be both obnoxious and exclusive.
I am in no way a PHP guy… and being a theme developer for WordPress does not require that I have to be.
I am, in no way, a PHP guy. In fact, I don’t want to be and being a theme developer for WordPress does not require that I have to be. I am also humble enough to admit when I am not the smartest in the room. When faced with a bit of functionality, that is not native to WordPress, We Are Pixel8 continually relies on the valued assistance of the WordPress community for their willingness to share their knowledge and point us in the right direction when lost.
Sometimes that compass points in the direction of a stable plugin solution and employing such a solution does not speak to our deficiencies as developers. I would think it to be counterproductive to stubbornly attempt to develop another solution unless you are improving upon that solution.
Also, as a business owner who has to be cognizant of the unbillable time it takes to design, develop and deploy a premium theme, I have to make sure we do not dedicate precious time reinventing the wheel. Sure, we could develop our own custom contact form right into our themes. But why do so when plugins like Contact Form7 or Gravity Forms already work seamlessly with WordPress, are customizable, are supported and will allow the user to continue to use them without our theme? Does this dilute our products or make them less premium than the theme that does. Absolutely not!
Are Theme Options a Bad Idea?
I’m still on the fence about this one and don’t have a definitive answer either way. The more themes we release will eventually formulate an answer for us. I will say, in the coming weeks, we will be looking at all of our premium theme options and removing any that can be handled by a plugin. We will also do our best to vet plugins that can better perform the task we will be removing and make sure that our recommendations work seamlessly with our themes.To me, this is the responsible thing to do.
I know that this will mean that we are expecting our customers to be slightly more sophisticated and knowledgeable about WordPress and I think this is a good thing. Simply because the customer has the ability to purchase an inexpensive theme to easily launch their own website should not strip them of the responsibility of knowing how to use WordPress or extend the theme to fully meet their needs.
As developers, we also have to be an active participant in the education process. This is integral for the community to grow and thrive. What do you think?