Have you ever wanted to create a premium WordPress theme? I’m sure we’ve all noticed an explosion in this market over the past few months due to the income potential, but I’ve also noticed a bad trend that I’d like to talk a little bit about. That trend is the very un-premium quality of many of these new themes being released, as well as a extreme lack of innovation put into creating these themes.

Many of the top designers in this market launched their sites back in late 2007 and quickly established their own niche. Since then, they have continued to release new themes, but they tend to shift their focus to a different type of end-user with each new theme. Newcomers seem to build very similar news/magazine themes that really aren’t all that different than what is already available. I don’t think to many people looking for a news or magazine theme are going to have any trouble filling their needs with what is already available, so place your focus somewhere else, or provide something in your theme that the competition doesn’t have.

In addition to picking out a niche to build your business around, there are also some things you should consider before releasing a premium WordPress theme. Long time readers know that I’ve been following the premium WordPress themes market pretty closely since last November when it really started to pick up steam, and I’ve noticed several (easily fixable) mistakes web designers are making when trying to compete in this very competitive market. Below I’ve collected a few of these things that you should have in place before you launch your theme:

  1. Theme Support – This is by far the most important way to find success. When you charge for your theme, it raises the stakes, and buyers need to know that you will be there for them if they run into problems with your theme. You need to setup Forums for buyers to use and you need to be very active on them.
  2. Offer Theme Updates – As time goes by the internet evolves and WordPress evolves with it. You’ll want to re-evaluate your premium themes every few months and make updates, add features, etc. Then offer a free upgrade to all previous buyers.
  3. Browser Compatibility – A new designer recently tried to enter this market with a theme that did not display properly in Internet Explorer 6. It is fairly unprofessional to release a free theme that doesn’t display properly in all browsers (in my opinion), but its free so you can sometimes get away with it. The second you start charging for your services, you’ll have to provide a fully compatible theem.
  4. Valid Code – Just like browser compatibility, it is unprofessional to release code that isn’t valid and shows a lot about you as a web designer.
  5. Advertising – As I said above, this is a very competitive market now, and the PPC rates have gone up considerably in the last couple months. How much will you pay-per-click? Sometimes you have to spend money to make money.
  6. Affiliate Program – With the cost of PPC advertising being so high, what better way to market your product than to offer an affiliate program? This helps encourage bloggers to promote your product and you only have to make a payment if a sale is made. If you decide to go this route, make sure to create some banners for affiliates to use (125×125, 300×250 at least) and I recommend using E-Junkie to manage your affiliate program for you. It only costs a few dollars a month and they handle all the work, including billing and providing download links to the buyer.
  7. Give Away Theme Copies – Contact some large blogs with a big following and offer a few copies of your theme to give away to readers via a contest, etc, in exchange for a review. You could also offer the author a copy in exchange for a review. If you go this route, think about your target audience and find blogs in that niche. A good place to start is with blogs about blogging or WordPress.
  8. Innovation – Do something different. Target a specific niche. Don’t just add another news/magazine theme to the list that is growing larger each day.

As you can see, there is a lot more to being successful in this market than simply offering a free theme. I think if you look at the three most successful premium theme authors, you’ll see a lot of the above.

So, anything you would add? I know most of the premium theme designers read this blog and I would love to get their input. What about buyers of these themes? What do you look for when purchasing one a premium WordPress theme?

Edit: PJ has provided a bunch of other responsibilities in the comments that were so good that I felt they warranted being added to the original post:

  1. Control Panel Options – Adding the ability to customize your theme from the control panel is a great option. At a minimum, buyers should be able to plug in their Feedburner feed information from the control panel.
  2. Provide Tutorials – Providing tutorials to buyers is a great way to show you support your theme.
  3. Multiple Color Schemes – Offering several different stylesheets to choose from as a great way to widen the appeal of your theme. This helps buyers use their favorite colors and make their sites/blogs look more original.

Kyle Eslick is WordPress enthusiast who took his passion for WordPress to the next level in 2007 by launching WPHacks.com as a place to share hacks, tutorials, etc. Follow Kyle on Twitter @KyleEslick!

  1. PJ says:

    Great post. I’d also say that premium theme developers need to make it as easy as possible for people who are not so technically-minded to alter the look of the theme to suit their purposes. Some theme designers provide a range of colour schemes, some take it to the next level by providing a customisation options page in wp-admin.

    It’s also a good idea to have tutorials on the fundamental elements of the theme, e.g. using custom fields to link to thumbnails, etc., because it means that new buyers won’t need to scratch their heads to figure these things out, and it gives a good impression to potential buyers.

  2. Bo Price says:

    I concur! Great post!

    I was actually just ranting last night on twitter regarding “Premium” Themes and designers that “encourage” users to use a particular browser.

    Granted I do agree there is a better browser however I will not name names or point fingers simply because of my preference. Especially in an area that WE HAVE NO CHOICE in what browser our visitors use. I will not take the chance of losing a reader because I am “to good” to design a compatible site for all browsers.

    I also agree that on back end “Premium” themes administration can often be overwhelming to the average user. Just because you can doesn’t always mean you should make things handy. (read: difficult)

    Again, great post! Thanks!

  3. Trisha says:

    @PJ – Excellent point on making customization easy for purchasers. A lot of theme developers don’t do that. As Kyle says, you can get away with some things when you offer a theme for free, but when you charge for it you owe your purchasers a certain minimum level of quality and service.

    Another “must” would be providing clear documentation/instructions before purchase that includes very clear description of exactly WHO the theme is targeted to: case in point, I recently purchased a $55 premium theme, only to find out that it won’t suit my purpose at all. Right now I’m knee deep in tearing it completely apart – functions and all – and rebuilding it from the ground up. I’d have thrown it out completely but it does have a few features I like and want to keep. I’m sure it’s probably a great theme for the right person, but had I known in advance what it’s limitations were, I would not have bought it.

  4. Richard H says:

    Great post Kyle.

    With so many decent free themes out there, a premium theme has to truly shine before many people will consider paying for one. Especially those people who have the ability to tweak a theme to make it somewhat unique for their own site.

    I get a bad taste in my mouth when free themes don’t work right, so I have no patience at all for premium themes that aren’t darned near perfect. And they should have at least a couple features that make them stand out from the crowd.

    Great writeup—thanks!

  5. Kyle – great work, and a lot of good points for those who really want to try to do it the right way. Having a support forum is a huge necessity, one that has saved me hours of answering the same questions, but more importantly it serves two big purposes. It builds community within the theme users, as well as shows potential users how much time/care has gone into the theme. I’ve heard numerous times from people how much they appreciate that there is a Revolution resource where they can go to ask questions, and have them literally answered in minutes.

    As a side note, my business is focusing on #8. I will soon be releasing an entire project based upon this point, and I am very excited to say that I think it will be something that people within the niche I am focusing will be happy with.

  6. Kyle Eslick says:

    Thanks everyone for sharing your opinions! There is nothing like having a good discussion in the comments.

    @ PJ – A bunch of great things I forgot to mention. Do you mind if I add them to my original post? I will be crediting the source with a link. :mrgreen:

    @ Brian – Thanks for taking the time to comment, as you know as well as anyone what all is involved.

  7. PJ says:

    I’m glad that you found my comment helpful.

    Another thing that I forgot to mention was that the very least I’d expect from a premium theme is well-documented and well-organised code so that users can easily tweak the theme. Sure, I can probably figure out where a particular line of code is with a bit of effort, but it’s definitely better when it’s all clearly marked so that I can quickly spot the section I want to tweak.

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