The state of the WordPress theme industry

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Written By David Perel

12 thoughts on “The state of the WordPress theme industry”

  1. The theme market isn’t what it used to be, a lot of the older shops got used to making a ton of money with hardly any effort. Times have changed, you have to work harder for it now, and it’s very difficult if you are a new-comer. There are still ways to make money, but you need a competitive advantage, just like any other industry.

  2. As someone who has focused almost exclusively on service work, but is interested in themes as products, I find this a bit disheartening. It’s a wake up call for sure, signaling that we can’t just copy/paste a competitor and rake in a ton of money.

    A lot of my time is spent talking about educating users and clients, in giving them what they want and not giving them what they don’t need. It’s easy for a theme developer to say this, but hard to pull off in practice while maintaining sales. An education of developers and sellers is in order as well, to give people more of a warning like this when they decide to enter the crowded theme market.

    There’s no question that a few theme companies will grow and that many will fail. Putting this into perspective for potential shop owners can help lessen the blow when it comes.

  3. Excellent post, David.

    I’m personally still optimistic about the WordPress theme industry. Though it’s not “easy money” anymore, I think there is still so much potential. But it has to be targeted differently.

    I think these targets for success can take many shapes. It may be incredible simplicity of themes. It may be creating channels for people to go from template -> live website quickly (hosted theme companies, hosting partnerships, or otherwise). It may be a sharp move into niche themes and companion plugins.

    I think we’ll see people successfully hit each of those I note above. In fact, I already see it in some places. But I think each of these and other ideas are difficult to implement, market, and find buyers. The current buying market is well trained right now, and that trained behavior (brought on by theme companies themselves) have to be broken.

    But I think it’ll happen. WordPress is still growing rapidly, and the needs are there. I think we’ll see a resurgence of the theme business, but it’ll look quite different from what we’ve seen in the past.

    Thanks for letting me republish this post, I really enjoyed reading it and thinking about it.

    • I think you hit the nail on the head by bringing up the “template -> live website” process. A big wall for new WordPress users is still in going completely live.

      Poor host performance, SEO, images, optimization, Theme Updates, Plugin updates, WordPress updates and how they all work together or against each can paint a frustrating picture when they pop up unexpectedly.

      So tapping into those areas as a theme shop either with direct support or at the very least assistance is perhaps the easiest path forward right now.

  4. I feel like some of the issues here (which are real) and the conclusions (finding a sustainable business model) could have been written one or two years ago and they’d be just as relevant. So that makes me wonder. At any given point there will always be one or two shops that are closing up, so what constitutes a larger issue and what is the larger issue?

    One of the things that is going through my mind as someone who wants to publish themes is that it is very hard to out-compete the flagship themes, the themes that do almost everything. Not only do they have more features capabilities, but also more momentum and support and history on their side. And maybe those themes are swallowing up sales from less featureful themes/more tailored themes that shops have been churning out. These power themes like Divi are almost always going to be a better value-for-money deal than a standard type of theme.

    So really the goal must be differentiating in unique enough ways and figuring out how to reach your customers. And there’s enormous room for differentiation. And I think some older shops maybe struggled to adapt in that way (speculating…). It takes a lot of r&d time to develop something that sets it self apart or serves a niche audience really well. How do you fit that into a once-a-month cycle.

  5. Very good article with good insight into the WordPress industry. I worked the Joomla cms for just over 6 years, but about 4 years now I’ve been focused on WordPress. I can easily say it’s been an interesting experience to watch over the years, especially checking out Theme Forest almost on a daily basis. Unfortunately, so many themes there look the same or all have the same features…even I can be guilty of that.

    I think the trick is to never stay still, and to always improve on something with each theme, do something unique, and to try and educate the end-users as best as you can along the way.

    However, and from what I can see, it’s getting harder for anyone wanting to get into theme design/development. You mentioned about those who hope to be the next Kreisi or Goodlayers, or even ThemeGoods (formerly Peerapong). I think the timing for that was long ago. Really depends on what the buyer is looking for at any given moment.

  6. Some really good points in this article.

    About the sustainable business models part of the article I’d like to add that:

    1. Lifetime updates is not a thing (or shouldn’t be one)
    2. Lifetime support is not a thing (or shouldn’t be one)

    I’ve seen this kind of behavior from many big players around the world and I’ve always had the same question. How is it possible to support someone forever when she just made an one off payment of $69, $49 or whatever?

    About the lock-in I think it’s just right there in WordPress core. The development cycle between major releases is getting shorter. From my experience people have no problem paying a small amount just to make sure that their website won’t fall apart when they upgrade to the next major WordPress version. And recurring payments are justified just for that.

    About the support, I’m buying themes from competitors just to check their support strategy and it’s far from “decent” as David characterizes it in his article. Replying after 3 – 5 days with a generic / canned answer isn’t enough.

    In other words I think it’s not about the design, the 1000 features and the amazing drag and drop builder anymore. It’s a combination of a) solving one specific problem with each theme (did I mention that multipurpose themes must die?), b) be right there for each and every customer and c) all that for small upfront payment + a recurring fee for support / updates.

  7. Often (it varies each month) one of the most asked questions we get over at WPMU DEV is regarding updates and support “Why should I have to pay for updates?”, “Why should I have to pay for support” and they are tough questions to tackle when so many companies have over the years offered the once in, in forever price model.

    Even the eat all you can food buffet has limits! 🙂

    For years my response has always been sustainability, and a counter question “Would you rather us still be here in 5 years and able to support you effectively”.

    Development costs money, support costs money. When a customer starts to cost more to the company than their original purchase you’re then on a downward spiral as more customers join that category which ultimately will cost more than money, reputation.

    I’m not saying the customer should just be a number, a financial figure, but a business is about profit and being able to provide and if you can’t provide you fail your customers.

    Pricing lies we tell ourselves, I enjoy reason the awesome Chris Lema articles:

    Companies are changing their models, and the sooner the whole “Buy once, eat forever” mentality is gone the better as far as I’m concerned. After all, how many people using our premium services offer the same to their clients, and I don’t know of any companies that are hiring staff which say “I’ll pay you once now, you work for me forever”, could you imagine that.

    Thanks for the read 🙂

  8. Great post.
    A recurring payment plan for updates and support sounds fair to me.

    As a regular buyer of wordpress themes I wondered what the average time is when a theme comes to its lifecycle end. Any idea?

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