2008 doesn't seem like very long ago. And yet, so much has changed in the last five or six years – particularly when it comes to WordPress themes. Particularly when it comes to selling WordPress themes.
Now, to be clear and upfront with you – I have never sold a WordPress theme in any sort of theme store. I've sold services. And I've sold a lot of software products. But never a premium theme in the WordPress ecosystem.
So some of you may close your browser right now. Because I don't have the requisite experience to have an opinion. That's ok. Nothing to see here.
They gone? Ok, let's get to it.
The Personality Years
The early years were formed largely by a single question – answered mostly in the affirmative – “can this actually be a business?”
And everyday people – normal in virtually every respect – were asking the questions. But by being some of the first to ask it, we came to know them.
We witnessed the emergence of some key folks like Brian Gardner, Cory Miller, Adii, Mark & Magnus, and Jason Schuller (I'm not writing a history book, so don't highlight all the people I just missed).
These guys were trying something – long before theme frameworks were created and before GPL debates. They were creating and selling premium themes. And no one knew if it would take off.
They tried different business models, different prices, and different approaches to support.
But they all had two things in common:
- You knew the names of the people attached to the themes
- You made your purchases digitally
Now right away you're going to say “no duh” but I'll tell you, there's nothing predictable about this. Just a year or two before that, people had purchased a lot of their internet software (including software that submitted your website to search engines) in boxes that were shrink wrapped and on the shelves of CompUSA.
My hypothesis is that we were finally getting to the point where online purchases were more comfy, but we still needed to trust the people who were selling things to us. And our ability to connect to specific people, and their online personas, made it easier for us to make those purchases.
The Theme Club Years
Success is imitated – even if it's not fully understood.
So the success of those folks (listed above) resulted in several more companies spinning up and trying their hand at creating their own theme shops. They were everywhere and some of them were really fantastic.
We started seeing a lot of theme clubs – where a single price got you access to tons of themes. Additionally, we saw it become one of the only places in the ecosystem where there was any segmentation – in the form of “developer licenses.”
All of this meant two things:
- We knew companies more than the people in them
- They knew (a bit) more about us (via segmentation)
Notice the shift. We know a little bit less about them, and they know a little bit more about us.
And it was happening in time with the rise of internet marketers, the emergence of the importance of “your list” (the emails of all your customers), and much more.
Regardless of its sustainability, there was the shift that happens when you see more competition – a race to the bottom – with cheaper and bulk offerings (the clubs).
And with it came two results:
- Our judgement now was focused on the best/lowest price
- Our selection now was focused on the best features / nicest look
The Mega Marketplaces
If you're following along with my logic and observations, you can predict where this next stage went – and some would argue that we're still in it.
The amount we know of the developers behind themes has become virtually nothing, especially when buying from places like ThemeForest.
Other large marketplaces have sprung up with a host of sellers, and so we've finally gotten to the point where most people simply make decisions based on low price and feature-bloat / design options.
I say bloat and options because more often than not, what sells (to the general market) are huge themes (10 times the size of some clean, well-designed themes) with 16 sliders – as if one or two that you install separately wasn't good enough.
And as the earlier business models demonstrate a lack of sustainability and a true sense of the real cost of support, the idea of drive-by theme sals and deliveries is inviting to some of the less scrupulous among us.
But there's also a tremendous amount of:
- Failure to find a theme that you and your hired developer will like
- Failure to find a theme that is adequately supported
- Failure to find developers who know how to (and are willing to) use phones
- Crappy themes
- Options. So many that we can't even make a decision.
I know some of you have gotten to this point and you're screaming out loud about some of the great themes that are out there – well-supported and sold by reputable developers and their companies.
I get it.
But let me ask you a question before your n=1 case tries to defeat my n=2000 data. If you interviewed 1000 people (who you didn't know) who were just getting ready to start building a WordPress site, do you really think they're calling out those same names? Or are they naming the top selling themes on ThemeForest (some of which are horrible)?
I don't debate that some companies and sites out there are awesome. I'm just saying that in the age of Home Depot-like theme shops, the uneducated guest is still standing in an aisle alone without any context and is more likely to pick poorly than they are to choose well.
Enter the Future of selling WordPress themes…
If you study good storytelling, which I often do, you'll discover that the answer is always right there with you in the beginning.
I predict that for theme shops to really do well in this next phase of WordPress premium themes, they're going to have to go back to developing trust. They're going to have to go back to having people know the developers and designers behind the products.
Those personalities are going to have to come out front and center again.
Not because we need more rockstars – but because we need to trust people again.
The rise of internet marketers selling the perfect do-it-all theme (and a new one every week) has created enough noise and dissonance that we don't know where to go, or who to trust, to purchase a theme we can use.
I've noticed over the last several months that I lean towards buying themes from:
You know why?
Because I know them. Because I trust them. Because I know they're not going anywhere.
Eventually custom theme development shops like Jennifer Bourn, Emily White, Jeni Elliot, and CodyL will be persuaded by their customers to release their own stores.
It won't be the same as the first go-around with a limited number of huge personalities. But those that build audiences and trust first will find them ready to buy everything they sell, including themes.
Because in this game, we don't want commodities. We don't want just the code. We want the relationship that helps us make sure our investment in the code of our themes is worth it