The Future of Premium WordPress themes

It’s prediction time: The Premium WordPress Theme phenomenon has approximately one year left before collapsing entirely, leaving a rather large hole between completely free WordPress themes and custom themes $1500 and up. If you’ve got a “Premium” WordPress theme waiting in the wings I advise releasing it sooner rather than later. As in, now.

Before I explain myself let’s get one term straight: Premium. I’d rather use the compound “pay-for-use” because more often than not “Premium”, when it comes to WordPress themes, simply means “it costs money” and not “of superior quality”. This isn’t true for everyone of course. But it is certainly true of some (and will increasingly become true of more as the market becomes saturated).

Alright, that out of the way let’s get on with the doomsday WordPress theme market scenario. This week theme designer Justin Tadlock released a jam-packed WordPress-as-CMS style theme called “Options“. The download package is just a mess—in the best way possible; Justin’s got extra widgets, sub menus, javascript tabs, page templates and integration with popular plugins and web services, all wrapped up in a fairly clean design ready for customization. Way to go Justin.

Oh, and Options has one more feature. It signals the end of the Premium WordPress theme market.

The End of The Premium WordPress Theme Market

You see, options has pretty much every feature you’d ever find in a premium theme, including support, with one stupendously major difference. It’s free. And that’s not all. While there are premium themes out there with slightly different feature sets that Options doesn’t have, how long do you think it will take before those too have been brought up to the free-theme level? I give it two months.

This development hasn’t been without controversy. Options was briefly de-linked from Weblog Tools Collection for copyright concerns and spawned two follow-up posts on WPDesigner, and Adii.co.za. All three posts have somewhat heated comments sections and are all worth a read.

My Stance on The Decline and Fall of the Premium Theme Market

My stance is easily summed up in one word: Good. When I started ThemeShaper one of my eventual goals was to release a free WordPress theme that would pull the rug out from under the Premium theme market. Partly because I enjoy making mischief but mainly because I saw it becoming saturated and I wanted to clear some room for new ideas. As you can imagine, I’m quite happy to have Justin clear the road for me (in a far grander way than I could ever have done).

Plus, WordPress themes, technically, have to be free.

As it turns out, WordPress themes are likely covered under the GPL license that WordPress ships with. Matt Mullenweg seems to think so and I bet he’s looked at this issue somewhat thoroughly. Any work that builds off of WordPress and contains some of it’s particular code would inherit that license. That’s how the GPL license works—apparently—I’m not a lawyer. But note that premium theme designer Adii (I’ve also recommended his work) mentions having “no legal rights” in his recent presentation on the premium WordPress theme market. He seems to suspect Matt is right.

For more information check out WordPress themes are GPL code, a post that does an excellent job summarizing the debate around this issue.

But there are other ways to make money theming WordPress.

Other Premium WordPress Theme Ideas

No one yet, to my knowledge, has made a premium WordPress theme that has the polish and flash of the best Joomla themes. Take a look at RocketTheme and Yootheme if you don’t believe me. There’s one idea. Take the Premium Theme Market to a whole ‘nother level—until someone catches up again. And, of course, the flashiest WordPress theme still inherits the GPL license. But not everything does. Figure out what doesn’t inherit that license and monetize that.

There’s theme clubs offering support and early-bird access to novel themes, like the aforementioned RocketTheme and the WPDesigner Themes Club (currently giving away 20,000 memberships—small potatoes think big). But it doesn’t stop with Themes clubs.

Designers could team up with developers and offer custom WordPress installs—you get a highly specialized theme that works with a highly specialized version of WordPress supported by custom plugins. This would be a great idea. It would allow for more experimentation and take much of the burden off of the theme. An appropriate price and level of complexity would scare off pirates. And even if the free market offers your ideas and theme structures for free there’s no way they would want to compete with the kind of service and support this model would have to offer.

The WordPress community is huge and ever-changing; I know there are even more great ideas out there.

Whatever happens to the Premium WordPress theme market in the next year it will certainly be interesting. Myself, I’m going to continue releasing enthusiastic experiments in WordPress theming. One of those experiments may just be a “premium” theme—with a left field way of looking at monetizing it. This won’t happen anytime soon, if it happens at all, but it’s been in the back of my cluttered mind for a while.

Let’s see what happens.

37 thoughts on “The Future of Premium WordPress themes

  1. Interesting post, I agree that it will only be a matter of time before more theme designers add features that currently are on Premium Themes, I would like to think that my very own Forte theme is doing that as well.

    Also another benefit of releasing a free themes is the tons of linkbacks.

  2. I wouldn’t give it exactly a time limit.. premium themes are going to live on in one name or another.
    Currently it’s saturated with magazine/news layouts and now the overly used domtabs because everybody is just copying those who did it first. You could say they’re trying to catch up with those who started this whole paid themes movement.

    In the next few months expect to see more features and more niche themes that dont boast having domtabs as a feature, but more useful functionality.
    People like you and others who provide free themes that challenge those premium themes are a good thing and should be expected. I believe if premium theme authors are charging for their themes, they should at least be able to keep advancing their themes to exceed those free themes if they want to stay in business.

  3. Two more reasons why I give the Premium Theme Market a year:

    If someone was motivated to, they could set up a site that only released themes similar in style and scope to popular premium themes. iThemes puts out a new theme, so do they. Adii release a new theme, so do they. Ptah Dunbar releases a new theme, so do they. Or, at the very least, they release an in-depth tutorial, Penn & Teller style, that reveals every secret. That would be hugely popular.

    It wouldn’t surprise me if someone put up a site for WordPress themes similar to file sharing sites—except in this case it might be perfectly legal. If you release a premium theme, one of the supporters of this site buys the theme from you backed by funds supplied by other supporters and puts it up for free downloading. Your only recourse is to sue at which point you find out that no court will take the case, thanks to the GPL. It would be sleazy and somewhat mean but likely hugely popular.

    I’m not advocating these approaches but either one of them would have a huge impact on the market. There’s also the potential impact of a WordPress.com Theme Marketplace to consider, if that’s still in the works.

    • Kevin says:

      Ian,

      You make a lot of great points about open source however I think there’s room (and a place) for both free and premium. Take a look at linux. (red hat, kindle “which is built on linux”). In addition I think a little capitalism could help wordpress become even more popular. I would like to see a theme/plugin store that would partner with theme/plugin developers, similar to what apple has done with the app store.

      Sure the code it self can be open source but what about actual design? If a well known brand decided to convert their static page to a wordpress theme would that give someone the right to copy the “look and feel” of the site. Where do we draw the line?

      Also, Automattic is profitable and uses open source technologies themselves in their profitable business…. (php, mysql) http://www.labnol.org/internet/blogging/how-wordpress-makes-money/7576/

      Again, just my 2 cents I wanted to add to the conversation.

      Keep up all of your great work. I’ve learned a lot of good stuff from your posts.

  4. Yes, that is possible and it would take someone with lots of dedication and resources to pull that off.

    Again, premium to me doesn’t just mean more features or bells and whistles, you also forgot support.

    They can provide all the premium themes they want for download but if they cant support it, then who do you think they’ll go to in order to fix a bug, or receive new updates to the theme? or better yet release newer versions that fix compatibility issues with newer versions of wp? you think they’ll want to go through all that trouble just to see the premium theme market go bad? The way I see it is free advertisement.. eventually they’ve got to come back for more.

    Yeah premium theme authors might loss a lot of market because of this, but there are ways to decrease that risk.

  5. I have to second Ptah’s point and add to it. Supporting multiple complex themes is going to be a huge burden. That’s partially why I never went the news/magazine route in the first place. Paid themes is a different beast. Unlike other services, you can’t simply outsource support. Who knows more bout your theme than you do?

  6. True. But my larger point about the tenability of the premium theme market remains. As long as designers continue to release complex and well-designed themes for free, and once the legalities of WordPress themes and the GPL become publicly straightened out, the Premium theme market as it exists today probably won’t survive.

    Like I said in the post, some creative thinking will produce a good solution and maybe a pay-per-use market will continue to thrive. I’ve come up with an alternate solution that I hinted at in the post. Others are probably thinking of the same solution. We’ll see what happens.

  7. … and I should add that I clearly have no ill will for anyone releasing pay-for-use themes. I get excited about any great WordPress theme, whether it’s free or for a premium.

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  9. Ian, great post, and lots of good ideas/comments here. I will say that the past 6 months for WordPress has definitely been interesting – in mostly positive ways. For me, the bottom line is that this whole topic reminds me of football.

    People watch it on TV for free, and people choose to pay money to see it in person. Some people root for the Colts, and some people root for the Patriots. All in all, they are all fans of the NFL, and that’s the same thing with WordPress and the whole free vs. paid themes topic.

    Ian, I appreciate your comment about not having an ill will towards those who develop themes that cost money. We all have our own business models, and we all chose to do what works for us.

    Aside from a few situations here and there, one thing I have enjoyed about WordPress is that the community really supports one another – that’s why we leave comments on each other’s sites, that’s why we give feedback (positive and negative) and that’s why we take the time to offer up our time.

    Piggybacking on the support comments, yes, for me supporting Revolution is #1 priority, even over those who wish to have me develop customizes themes. Why? Because I believe that I owe it to those who have purchased my themes, so much in fact I chose to develop a support forum for them. (and if you have ever seen it, you will clearly see how much time, effort and manpower is required to support multiple complex themes.)

    I’m interested in what lies ahead for Theme Shaper, and what your “left field” ideas are.

  10. And if it makes anyone feel any better, the road that Revolution will go down in the foreseeable future is away from the magazine/news look, and towards specific niches. Enough of the saturation, right? ;)

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  12. Thanks for contributing to the conversation, Brian. And for not taking things the wrong way. I can see we’re both huge fans of WordPress. Plus, I’ve been a fan of yours since you released Vertigo!

    I feel obligated to point out however that many WordPress theme designers fully support their themes—for free. Even going so far as to maintain forums around them. I think this is more a sign of the loving craftsman than it is of strictly pay-for-use theme designers. Many people that sell products—including, I’m sure, premium WordPress themes—provide terrible support. It’s the people that love and believe in their products, free or paid, that support them.

  13. Understood Ian, then it’s a good thing that I both love and believe in my product, which is why I am spending all of my time working with it, supporting it and developing it.

    I will point out as well that I spent my first year on the web developing free themes, and supporting those as well. Replying to emails, hearing people’s stories and making sure users of my themes feel important is at the top of my list.

    To me it doesn’t make sense to try selling a product without the intent to support it. That’s bad advertising in my opinion, which is why I’m a firm believer that my support, speedy responses with email and my support forum help sell the theme. Because people know that if they happen to run into an issue, they can probably get a response on my forums within an hour.

  14. Too true. I do believe I remember people saying that about you—even when you were doing this for free. One of the many reasons I’ve had no problem recommending iThemes.

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  19. The reason why the Premium “or pay for” themes will crash is because people prefer FREE stuff, including me….

    People will and have been releasing as good and some times even better themes cheaper and or free (like Options) and this will mean that people will use it instead. I will probably be one of these people.

    The only other problem with this is that designs of blogs will become boring and very very similar as everyone else.

  20. To add further fuel to the fire…

    “In a nutshell, Matt [Mullenweg] said that he didn’t like where premium WordPress themes are going … he explained to us that the current state of selling WordPress themes aren’t helping the community grow, which defeats the purpose of WordPress being open source. How are other theme authors going to learn from your themes if you’re only giving them an option to buy them?”

    Read more at PtahDunbar.com.

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  25. So it’s been a little over one year since this post was published. Seems to me, premium wordpress theme sales are still thriving. Have you changed your stance Ian or do you still believe in the end of pay for themes that will soon run it’s lifecycle?

    Thanks,

    David

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  28. Michael says:

    Yes, the demise of Premium themes has not actually happened… yet.

    One other thing that has remained is the reality that many “Premium” themes are poorly coded, have undergone little if any testing in the real world before release and are buggy as a result. Calling a theme “Premium” is easy, but most are really just crap that cost money.

    What this community really needs is a peer code review process that vets the posers from the real quality programmers. Call out the phonies and applaud the true stars of template design.

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