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A Prediction Into the Exciting Future of Premium WordPress Themes

A Prediction Into the Exciting Future of Premium WordPress Themes

(originally published April 30, 2014)

Last wekk, Chris Lema published a thought-provoking post asking if it’s worth getting into the premium WordPress theme business. He mentioned that some major theme shops are shifting their focus away from themes and onto plugin development.

Just because some of the top dogs are changing their game up a little, doesn’t mean that the premium theme market is going away.

If you ask me, there’s never been a more exciting time to get into the premium WordPress theme business than right now.

As WordPress grows closer and closer as a collaborative community and more plugin shops open with exciting new business models, the demand for simple themes that integrate with these plugins will skyrocket.

Here’s my thought process…

WordPress as a True Content Management System

WordPressAs WordPress loses its title as a blogging platform and gains more traction as a full-fledged CMS that can be used for literally any kind of website, there becomes a greater demand for more powerful features.

Think of how important the concept of posts was when WordPress was just a blogging platform. You don’t have a great blogging software without an easy to use posts system and WordPress sure nailed it there.

Now, scale that same concept up to a content management system that can become anything, and WordPress’ potential use cases (eCommerce, membership, portfolio, etc.) require their own signature features to make creating different types of websites as easy as it was to create a blog.

WordPress will never be defined by just one type of site so you will never see these tailored features built-in. That’s why these plugins are so important and are exploding into marketplaces right now.

I’ll give you some examples:

Need a forum? bbPress is a plugin that adds an entire discussion forum to your WordPress site.

How about a store? With Easy Digital Downloads, you can create a complete store system that lists your products and sets up payment gateways.

There’s even a new powerhouse on the block in AffiliateWP, which adds a powerful affiliate program to your site in no time.

These plugins are what make WordPress such a wonderful platform now and are a huge part of why it’s so easy to build a website of any kind.

The true potential of these plugins, though? That can be unlocked with add-ons.

The Value of Add-ons

Plugins as Addons

The concept of add-ons is simple: take a base plugin (say, Easy Digital Downloads) with basic features and create plugins that can make it do even more.

This strategy is becoming more widely used (opposed to creating one-off products) because it better accommodates “The Big 3″:

  1. The user
  2. The developer
  3. The business

Selling separate add-ons allows the user to pick the features they want and minimize what they don’t. This makes a plugin substantially more user friendly, easy to use, and even fun to setup.

From a developer standpoint, plugins that follow this model will have significantly less features built into core which makes for a more maintainable and lightweight codebase.

Rather than solely focusing on new features in the base plugin, focus can be put on making that plugin more extendable for add-ons.

A business that follows this model could even become more profitable and sustainable (we know how important sustainability is) as more products are being created and sold as part of a large up-sell system.

There are a lot of possibilities here and it’s been exciting seeing plugin developer’s leverage these strategies to create such powerful new features and businesses for WordPress.

All of this now brings me back to themes.

A Shift in Theme Development

WordPress Plugins/Themes

There’s a shift going on in the theme development community.

Theme authors are taking features like sliders, custom post types, shortcodes, and other content-creating features out of their themes and moving them into plugins (where they belong).

Themes were never meant to handle such functionality, but rather the visual look and layout of a site. I’ve found the following to be true about building and running websites:

The design will always change, but the foundation generally doesn’t

Your design is simply a moving part that helps solidify your website’s bottom line. Whether it’s to sell products or create a membership site, your website has a purpose and requires certain functionality to achieve it.

Because design is so often changed, building functionality a website depends on into a theme is a crippling mistake. When the theme is switched, all of that functionality will be lost.

How can this be avoided? It’s easy: don’t build themes that “do it all”, but build themes that work with the plugins and style their functionality.

A Premium Theme Strategy for 2014 and Beyond

With such an array of power plugins out there, users are becoming less interested in what your theme can do and more interested in what your theme integrates with.

Check out what Sean Davis is doing with his Easy Digital Downloads themes and see how WooThemes integrates their plugins into their themes. I’ve taken this approach with my own theme Spotlight, and made a few plugins that integrate into it as well.

All it usually takes is some extra CSS to make most plugins work with your theme (and when I say “work”, I mean “look good”). Take the time to test plugins your customers love and build in support for them.

Go out and make a theme that works with a popular plugin and then try to get it featured on that plugins website. Users of that plugin in need of a theme will be all over it because it’s a theme built closer to their own needs.

Even come up with your own plugins and make them work on all of your themes. Build the feature once, put it into a plugin, reuse it, and just worry about styling it into new themes. It’s just too easy.

Of Course, Quality Still Rules All…

Integrations are huge, and I think we’re going to see a lot more plugins and themes from different companies working together.

But no matter which plugins your themes integrate with, never forget that your theme is still a product in itself and should be treated with care. Without a solid product of your own, how can you expect it to work well with others?

Build your themes on these 4 principles, and I guarantee you will create a product your users love:

  1. Load fast and use a minimal amount of resources to display content
  2. Work on any mobile device/computer with a responsive design
  3. Update automatically via the WordPress dashboard
  4. Developer-friendly with clean code to streamline customization

The catch is that these are the things that often go unnoticed and are under-appreciated by users. But the more your theme “just works” for them, the happier they’ll be with your products.

Theme Developers: Do You See the Potential Here?

WordPress is a collaborative community growing closer and closer together.

The plugins marketplace is booming.

And theme developers are creating design-first, feature-less themes that work with power plugins.

There’s some monumental stuff happening here and I can’t wait to see it all come together.

What do you think? What’s next for WordPress themes?