A Prediction Into the Exciting Future of Premium WordPress Themes

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?

19 comments add yours

  1. I completely agree with you here.

    For plugins, I think the freemium model, a la EDD or Ninja Forms, is genius and definitely the way to go moving forward.

    For theme development, if devs are building with intent (which they should) then building themes in the manner you’ve outlined above makes perfect sense.

    There’s so much opportunity out there. It’ll be interesting to see how things play out in the marketplace.

    • I think when we look back on this in a just a year (or as fast as the web moves, even 6 months…) we’ll see that plugins like EDD and Ninja Forms really paved the way for how a WordPress software business should be run.

      A theme addon system excites the hell out of me, and a huge piece of the puzzle as you said is building themes with intent. I hope more theme companies catch on to that idea at least.

      Thanks for the comment! Hope to see you get into the themes space too man.

      • “we’ll see that plugins like EDD and Ninja Forms really paved the way for how a WordPress software business should be run.”

        Funny you say this because I said this exact thing to Sean a few months back. I’m so sure that smart folks in the WordPress community will replicate their business model.

  2. A thoughtful and rational approach. Makes perfect sense, and the more your clients and potential clients appreciate this methodology the more win-win it becomes. It’s reassuring guidance, because I too — more loosely and less technically savvy than you — was circling around this very issue with regard a current project. You’ve just switched a light bulb on and illuminated what was a foggy grey area — at least for me. Thanks!

    • I’m glad this post made sense to you, Mark!

      I think it’s important that I explain the products I build on a deeper level like this, so customer’s who actually care about how their website really works can see where I’m coming from.

      • Absolutely. Creative dialogue tends to brings clients tighter into your way of doing things and builds loyalty. Relationship building in the first instance, but building something more: a potential lifetime client. The trick is not to give away the reason why people come to you, but engage them – and honesty, humility even, is endearing for the those types of clients you (probably) want to attract. i.e clients you LIKE. No one knows everything, and smart clients know this. I for one like suppliers (indeed everyone I know) who are explorative and seeking their own next level.

  3. More power to you, Alex. I think it is very open of you to talk about this.

    Why didn’t I take up the option of your themes when they came out? Too few choices and the ones that you have don’t appeal to me visually.

    And the early-bird discount wasn’t big enough to sway me.

    When I look at a developer’s site, I want to see a lot of choice. And I don’t want to see a theme or framework and the promise that I can do all kinds of magic with it (like Thesis) but which is basically one visual design.

    I like the look at the themes at ElmaStudio but I haven’t ever bought one.

    I bought the Watson theme from TheThemeFoundry.

    I despaired of the themes from WooThemes even though I appreciate WooCommerce.

    I was there when DevPress and AlienWP went their separate ways, and I have a photography site running Proxima from AlienWP.

    I am not overly fond of some of the themes at StudioPress, but there is choice and some good options in there.

    Most importantly, having used several of their themes I see from experience that StudioPress have the clout to get the coding right and give me something I can tweak with comparative ease – so I use them.

    So would I miss these developers if they were gone? Yes, particularly StudioPress for its tight code and reasonably wide choice.

    • I hear you completely when it comes to choice. I’m building my inventory up, so I do hope you follow along. Maybe you’ll see something you like. πŸ™‚

      I feel like a lot of theme shops (and I’m guilty of this) like to flaunt the tools that go into building a theme, rather than what the theme can actually be used for. Now, if you’re trying to sell something that is a tool, then obviously you want to promote it

      But I don’t think that’s most theme developer business model, so they would benefit immensely from advertising what people can accomplish with the theme. Building a parallax site, and having unlimited layout options is great… but what can you do with them?

      Thanks for sharing your experiences here, David!

      • Thanks Alex,
        Yes, I’m definitely sticking around. πŸ™‚

        I agree with you that buyers like to see what can be done with a theme, particularly when it’s a ‘builder’ kind of framework.

  4. Great post, and excellent points. I’ve always preferred working with essentially stripped down premium themes that act to set the styles – but leave the heavy lifting of features to various plugins. πŸ™‚

    It will be interesting to see if themes go the way of having certain theme-specific features (or styles) separated out into plugins themselves.

    • You nailed itβ€” keep styles and functionality separate!

      I’ve already done a little bit of that with the plugins I built into Spotlight, and plan on going heavy with the idea in my future products. I really think it’s an interesting approach, and can’t wait to see more theme shops adapt that into their own products as well.

      Thanks for stopping by! Miss having you around the forums. πŸ™‚

  5. Hey Alex, great read and spot on I think. I think another move which may not be wide spread but is something important for WP to become more CMS-like would be easier ways to use multiple content types and have your theme automatically recognize them and also more modular control over sections of content. Definitely agree functionality should be provided via plugins when things are complex or outside the scope of design.

    • Thanks for the comment man!

      You’re spot on with those thoughts, and I think that’s the direction WordPress is headed in. That’s why VelocityPage excites the hell out of me, as they’ve built that philosophy into a great frontend management tool.

  6. People always think that what is currently happening is ‘new’. Good marketing is based on sound direct response principles which have been tested and proven over 100 years ago.

    Want to really study the WordPress themes market?

    Study the history of car development and sales, notice ALL the similarities. For allot of car manufactures their big source of income comes from yearly car maintains through vendors that they fully or partially control.

    You’ll find your answer there. Trust me, I did.

  7. If this is truly where WP is going, it’s all going to be about building themes in conjunction with ‘theme friendly’ plugins that are useful (which is a super exciting concept).

    The modularity plugins provide is definitely convenient; that being said, historically mo’ plugins means mo’ problems (site speed, hosting bugs, etc).

    How do you guys plan to wrangle those issues?

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