Who is buying commercial WordPress themes?

mystery-buyerTo say the theme marketplace is undergoing a transition is probably an understatement. We’ve seen many shops sell or change focus over the past year. A few have maintained their place in the market or even grown some, but it’s not easy work.

One theme shop that’s seen steady growth since launch is Theme Furnace. They’ve learned some lessons along the way though. Oli Dale runs Theme Furnace, as well as the WP Lift blog (where he keeps a keen eye on the theme market).

According to Oli, a couple of things have helped him succeed in a crowded market. For one, they’ve transitioned to simpler themes, moving away from options frameworks and into purely customizer settings. This is consistent with moves by others folks I’ve covered, like Array, The Theme Foundry, and UpThemes.

The other thing that interests me is that Oli says a consistent release schedule has been “essential to maintain growth.”

Release often, sell more

It’s a bit difficult for me to really understand the dynamics of such a pattern though. I’ve always considered your average theme buyer as an end-user, like a business owner or blogger — someone simply looking for a theme for their own website.

Oli isn’t the only person that says consistent releases are pivotal. Chris Wallace from UpThemes has told me of similar patterns in his business; and established shops like WooThemes exploded in growth with monthly releases for years.

Theme shop loyalty

This presents a situation where there’s a different sales dynamic and probable audience for selling themes. It leads me to believe that many theme sellers are selling to repeat buyers. I think Tom McFarlin really nailed the dynamic in his recent post about brand loyalty.

Every one of us – or at least most of us – have companies that we love to love and that we love to hate, and I think that theme companies (or perhaps WordPress companies, in general) are beginning to catch on to this.

By that, I mean that they are beginning to understand that their brand and personality can help contribute to a potential customer’s purchasing decision. After all, themes are more than just the way your site looks or functions – at least to you, the customer – they are the product, the company, the personality of the company, the quality of support, and more.

Once you like a theme company, you’re likely to buy from them again the next time you need a theme. I know I work this way.

However, Tom’s take doesn’t account for the type of folks theme companies are selling to though.

Who is buying from independent theme shops?

I think a key is that maybe end-users aren’t finding independent WordPress theme shops.

I think a lot of theme shops are selling to flippers, folks building sites for friends, and what I call configurators (people who charge to install and configure a website with a pre-defined theme). I also have a feeling they are largely reselling to their own mailing list.

My gut tells me many of these buyers are already savvy to the marketplace and dynamic of the commercial theme ecosystem.

So are commercial theme shops really tapping the end-user market?

Where are the end-users?

If this kind of repeat buyer is the primary theme audience for independent commercial theme shops, it makes me wonder: Where are all the end-users?

Are they buying from marketplaces? Do some shops cater more heavily to end-users than others? Are they finding the commercial market at all? Are they — man I hope not — googling for free WordPress themes and downloading malware laden junk?

These site owners looking for themes have to exist. But I wonder, how does this affect overall perceptions of WordPress? My inner instincts tell me that perhaps it’s not such a good perception, if they aren’t seeing the best sources for new WordPress themes.

I’d love to see some data on this.

Do you know your buyers?

So, theme makers, who are your buyers?

Are you reselling themes to your email list? Are they business owners, independent bloggers, freelancers, developers, configurators?

Do you really know? I have a feeling end-users or site owners aren’t making up a majority of customers for independent theme shops, but I’d love to hear from you.

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  1. All of the demographics above.

    Typical customer engagement:

    “This design is perfect for what I’m working on.”
    It starts with the design. They like it and it fits 80-100% of their idea or project. They’re in.

    “Oh, wow, it has feature? Cool!”
    Features are second, but not a specific hook. If it’s too complex, you’re going to confuse them. Make it happen easily and they feel in control and are more engaged with your product suite.

    “How do I do with this theme?”
    Answer their support call to a reasonable extent within your control, hello icing on the cake.

    Rinse and repeat.

    I think out of all of the recent discussions going around about the theme industry, Tom nailed it. I’ve only been at this for 2 years, but I’m fairly certain that’s just when the market was starting to correct itself.

  2. Theme shops have different markets depending upon the type of themes they sell, what the features are, and where they are being used.

    If you’re a theme developer building WordPress.com themes or working within another hosted platform, you have a far less technical audience as they don’t get to tinker with theme code and likely would never want to.

    If you’re developing a “theme framework” odds are you’re going to market it towards people building sites for clients or other themes.

    The beautiful thing about WordPress is that it is accessible to just about everyone. With one-click installers available through most web hosts now, it makes setting up a WordPress website just about as easy as it can be. I think the challenge now will be reaching audiences beyond the typical WordPress developer, tinkerer, or agency and capturing entire niche markets with a full end-to-end solution.

  3. Over the six years that I’ve been selling commercial WordPress themes, the “type” of customer has gone through cycles. Originally they were mostly developers or techie types who wanted to tinker with WordPress.

    Then there was a massive wave of beginners who flooded the market.

    Now I find more of a balance with say 1/5 of our business being end users, 1/5 agencies, 1/5 flippers, and 2/5 our loyal customer base.

    Regular releases are the key to continuing not only with growth, but maintaining sales. New themes tend to get mentioned on other sites which drives traffic which in turn drives sales. My loyal customers may turn to me first, but since they aren’t the majority of my sales, I have to keep creating to create new customers.

    It’s crazy to see how much flux some companies have been in the last year or so. While I’ve had steady growth, the instability in the marketplace has caused me to table plans to hire a developer this summer.

  4. Interesting write-up Brian.
    I find we have more end-users than “configurators” due to how we market our themes – via WordPress.org and we get a lot of business from the theme roundups on design blogs which is typically people searching for “x wordpress themes”.

    We are upping our release schedule to twice a month so will see how this affects our revenue – Im thinking it can only be positive, as Bill mentioned, more releases = more mentions on blogs etc.

  5. Hey Brian

    Great post, sorry I’m late to it. Since launching our new site we have a permanent survey block which is visible in each page of a users profile.

    Initially we thought that not many people would complete it but we get a really impressive hit rate, over 50% actually.

    Obviously I don’t want to share too much of the valuable information but the one thing that has struck me is the amount of customers who want *more* multi-purpose themes.

    We already have a framework in development which was going down the simplification route but since watching the survey answers flying in we’ve had to stop and re-evaluate what we need to build.

  6. Although I am a WordPress plugin/PHP developer I am more like an end-user when it comes to design and CSS. Thus I may have some of the same perspectives as end-users.

    I’ve tried many commercial themes in the past for my own projects and I’ve always ended up giving up because they never handle more than 80% of what I need and to get the 100% requires me to hire a designer expect it’s almost impossible to find someone who can inexpensively enhance someone else’s theme (which is one reason I have so few sites of my own.) For client projects we always have a designer on the team and we build custom themes from scratch.

    But I’ve long thought that theme vendors should produce fewer themes and instead offer paid add-on features for those themes. So instead of 500 WooThemes I’d like to see 10 WooThemes and 100 or more add-on features for each theme. I’d happily spend $50 on a theme and then $10/feature if I knew that I could complete the site without having to hire a designer. And this also means that I’d be happy to ultimately spend a lot more per site to have it themed using an off-the-shelve theme.

    It also means that after my site is successful, I might actually have the money to hire a designer for a full custom theme.

    So what do I mean by “Features?” Page templates for many different layouts predesigned to work with the theme, for example. And page templates to work with popular plugins like Events Calendar Pro from Modern Tribe. Numerous different options for integrating social (vs. just one per theme design.) Different “skins” for a theme that includes colors, fonts and accent images where skins are less than a child theme and the theme itself is less than a parent theme/framework.

    Think about it. End-users don’t want to have do design the site nor modify code. They just want to select the options they want and then they just want it to work. Like Steve Job always used to say.

    I think the Theme vendor who offers themes like this will crack the end-user market wide open. And I know I’ll be one of their first customers.

  7. The flipper/configurator terminology seems inaccurate, misleading, and disparaging. In Joomla circles “site builder” came to be more commonly used, and I’ve always liked that term.

    If “site builders” are not the largest group of theme buyers, they are the largest group that produces large numbers of quality, lasting sites that reflect well on WP and support its ancillary markets. They are the best WP evangelists quietly creating quality WP sites people use as readers and customers.

    What the site builder does is not primarily about reselling themes with minor customizations; it is about picking the best host, theme and plugins, and configuring them for a specific use case, and then training and supporting the end user/s. They are probably building child themes with some amount of custom functions and design elements, but more effort may be put into customizing content types and the backend interface.

    Very few end users care about unique design or require such unique functionality that an off-the-shelf theme won’t do. Budget may impact their thinking, but not necessarily. Corporate clients typically care far more about functionality, training and support than design.

    In the infancy of the profession, web designers and developers have mimicked traditional print and manufactured product markets where unique presentation and unique functionality matters. Increasingly it becomes obvious that good UX is rooted in convention and familiarity — similarity over uniqueness — and total cost of ownership decreases with less original code that will have no upgrades unless you provide it yourself. The unique value offered to the end user by solo site builder is the same that’s provided by agencies large and small. It has to do with relationships that designers and developers tasked only to design and coding rarely provide: helping the end-user use their site to achieve (and clarify) their goals. This has mainly to do with content, marketing, and customer service.

    1. I think you’re assuming that I don’t value what I call a “configurator”. I think that role is very important.

      I also think that there is a difference between a flipper and what I call a “configurator”. A “flipper” may not be providing much along the lines of consulting, whereas the configurator or “site builder”, as you note, does — often with just as significant a level of strategy as someone building a completely custom site for someone.

      1. While no implied connotation comes to mind for me regarding the term “Configurator” I too, like Dan Knauss have used the term “Sitebuilder” to describe people who install WordPress, select and install and configure a theme and also select install and configure plugins. It seems most appropriate.


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