The long and short of it could be summarized as “No one likes the race to the bottom that is coming with the commoditization of WordPress themes, but buyer pressure (and several historical dynamics) have created an environment that isn't friendly to theme development companies.”
I agree 100%.
So do we need another post about the topic? Well, obviously, in writing this post, I'm suggesting there are a few more thoughts I haven't seen articulated yet.
Our buying patterns and dynamics have shifted
One of the things I haven't read about much is the changing characterization of how we see buyers thinking about WordPress themes.
Do you remember when your parents bought new furniture for the living or family room? It was several pieces. A couch. A love seat. A few tables. Maybe even furniture for the television.
In those days, it was a major purchase and I remember walking into several stores. For several hours. And eventually they picked something and then began the financing process. Yes – it cost enough that payments were going to be made for a while.
All that effort made sense because in those days that kind of purchase was a “major” purchase. The plan was to keep that furniture for years (maybe even decades).
When was the last time you went shopping for furniture? Did you spend that kind of time? Did you visit several stores? What about financing? Did you need it? Or did you get everything at IKEA?
And notice I didn't even ask if you expected it to last for decades?
There's been a shift in how we think about the longevity of our purchases. In general.
Remember when we used to repair a television. Or a vacuum cleaner. Or a VCR.
These days, if I lose the remote to a DVD player (in a move), it's likely cheaper to get a new DVD player (for $24).
What does this have to do with the WordPress theme business?
Well, one major observation I would make is that 5-6 years ago, when people bought a theme (especially from one of the larger theme shops), they assumed it was THE theme for their site.
Today people treat themes like IKEA furniture – easily replaced and never intended to last for years or decades.
It suggests, at least to me, that content portability is just as valuable to customers as how good a theme looks.
Think about it. It's like we're saying that the delivery service can power our buying decisions (you know, like Amazon Prime).
Consolidation can be expected and embraced
In 2000 the motion picture industry was a 7.5 B industry. Today it's projected to be 10.5 billion. Revenue is going up. But guess what? Ticket sales have been going down. In 2002 we saw the peak, at 1.6 billion tickets sold. Today we're looking at 1.3 billion. And while movie screen counts have gone up, there's another part of the story. The number of movie theaters open has gone down.
Why do I relate this to you?
Because it's a clear picture of consolidation. Ticket prices went up – you and I have felt it. And screens went up. But that's because of the megaplexes that now have 25 screens. And your little neighborhood theater that closed? Not a big shock, huh. It's part of the natural dynamics of consolidation.
What does this have to do with the WordPress theme business?
The interesting thing to me is that many of the early theme shops ended up creating not just WordPress themes, but theme frameworks (mostly as a way to help them build more themes faster). But that naturally kills the kind of portability that I was just writing about.
I love WooThemes (as a company). But do I really care about the WooThemes framework? Not really. I just want the look. That's what a theme is for, right?
I say that because the future of the theme industry, to me, includes some serious consolidation.
I'm talking about the megaplex of themes. With portability. But that is easier said than done.
Because it means that companies like iThemes, WooThemes and others (who are seeing revenues shrink in the theme space, but seeing revenue grow in the plugin space) have to be willing to bring their offerings together and be part of something bigger than just their own theme catalog.
And it's a better way to move further together than simply letting marketplaces win.
One tiny part of the answer is content marketing
I am not saying I have the entire answer to the issue of commoditization, but I do believe that a larger consolidated catalog (options!) and portability (change!) are parts of it.
Another part of the answer, in my book, is content marketing.
Phase one of the WordPress theme business was Field of Dreams. They built it and we just showed up.
But in phase two, I think part of the answer will be tied to content marketing.
Let's talk about the old days. We bought products because the companies and founders behind them. Today people are buying themes from marketplaces and they don't know the authors. They don't care.
They care about features and designs.
But they still struggle, post-purchase, with figuring out how to make their theme work with plugins. I get an email every four days about OptimizePress and either a membership or learning plugin. Every four days! That's crazy.
But the developers who built phase one themes were focused on design (and eventually some frameworks to help them move faster).
Tomorrow's developers need writers who keep content (tips, tricks, guides, tutorials, case studies, videos) at the forefront of Google, where new buyers will find and be directed to them.
I agree with UpThemes and Obox, but…
So while I agree with Chris Wallace that developers and designers need to focus on niches, I also think they need to step into (or support) several niches. Because the buyer may run a “portfolio” site today and a “business” site tomorrow.
And I agree with Obox that recurring revenue is interesting, but it won't come if we stay in phase one. We need to move (with haste) to a phase two, where expansive catalogs and portability make things easy for end users. In that world, we can shift the price points, much like movie theaters have kept pushing the price of movie tickets up.
And in the end of the day, I guess the one thing I'd push companies to think about is whether they want to be part of a larger win, or stand on their own and watch certain marketplaces win in their own way.
Like my friend Cory Miller reminds me regularly, “If you want to go far, go together.”