premium wordpress themes

Premium WordPress Themes: The Antithesis of Custom Themes

I spent $45 on this theme, but it doesn’t do what I want at all! If I want to use a slider, I either have to customize the home page myself or pay outrageous fees to a developer to do it for me. I’m not happy with this theme!

Ok, so I made that quote up, but it’s the combination of comments I’ve seen about premium WordPress themes. There’s a huge frustration when you spend money on a product and it doesn’t work as expected.

Is it the fault of the theme developer if theme isn’t a one-size fits all solution? No. Is it the fault of the theme purchaser if they didn’t understand what they were purchasing? I don’t think so.

We don’t pop out of the womb knowing everything, so today I’d like to spend a little time from a theme developer’s perspective about what a premium WordPress theme is and, even more importantly, what it isn’t.

First, What is a WordPress Theme?

If you’ve been around WordPress for at least a week, then you’ve likely heard the term “WordPress theme.” The idea of a theme is to separate the design from the content, enabling you to switch themes as the wind blows, while your content stays snug in the database.

I started my career creating long-winded HTML pages that sandwiched all the content with all the markup (fonts, colors, sweet scrolling javascripts). If I wanted to change one sentence, I had to wade through a terrible mess of code. So, all these years later when I found WordPress, I fell in love with the beautifully clean post editor screen and the concept of splitting out content from code.

So a theme, at it’s most basic level, is a collection of template files and style sheets dictating how your content gets displayed in a browser.

What’s a Custom WordPress Theme?

I make websites for people. I talk to them, seek to understand their business, their pain points, and their goals. I take all of those discussions and information, run them through my mental processor (go ahead and think Conky from Pee Wee’s Playhouse), and then build out a custom website. Part of that solution involves creating a custom WordPress theme. Emphasis on custom.

Affiliate Link territorySure, there are some great premium, or ready-made, themes out there (you know I’m particularly fond of StudioPress themes), but I have no expectation of a theme suiting the needs of a customer out of the box. I often use a premium theme as a launchpad for a customization (it’s a huge time saver for me, and a cost saver for my customers), but the bulk of a project will always be tailoring a theme (and site features/functionality) to match the needs of the customer.

A basic customization could include adding a company’s logo, color scheme, and moving around some widgets. An advanced customization requires complex elements, like integrating with third-party data services or modifying default WordPress behaviors to suit a particular use case. Customizations come in all shapes and sizes.

What are Premium WordPress Themes?

A premium WordPress theme is just a fancy way of saying “theme for sale” (i.e. not free). They might be utilitarian in nature, like my first theme Utility, or perhaps they’re niche specific, like the Winning Agent Pro theme for realtors.

In contrast to a one-off, unique custom WordPress theme, premium themes are made to be used over and over. Certainly they can be customized, but they come off the shelf as is.

Lastly, What Premium Themes Are Not

If someone purchases a premium theme with the expectation of a custom theme, frustrations will happen. My goal here is to lay out what someone can reasonably expect from a premium theme as well as highlight what should not be expected.

Premium Themes (Should) Include

  • Quality code
  • Documentation to set up a theme per the demo
  • Support outlet (i.e. contact form or forums)

Premium Themes Do Not Include

  • Custom color schemes or design work
  • Custom integration to a third-party service
  • Custom code on a per-customer basis

There’s a tricky line between supporting a product (i.e. making sure your documentation is clear and accessible, fixing bugs, answering usage questions) and supporting more general WordPress or technology questions (i.e. “how do I target an element in CSS” or “how will this [random] plugin look?”).

I always want to err on the side of great customer service and go beyond what’s expected, but sometimes the starting expectations are higher than I can meet.

The bottom line is: Premium themes are fantastic, but they are not the same thing as a custom theme. A $45 premium theme will never deliver the same outcome as a $3000 custom theme, unless you’re willing to put in the elbow grease (or hire it out) to take it to that custom level.

19 thoughts on “Premium WordPress Themes: The Antithesis of Custom Themes”

  1. Thanks Carrie. This is great information and as Edee said, I hope the people who need to see it, will. The worst case for me (which I’ve come upon a few times)? The potential client who has an idea for their website and says something like: “I’ve even got the template I want to use.” More often than not, they’re looked at the style of it rather than the functionality. Then when you sit down with them for your first meeting, you find the structure of the template isn’t going to do what they want without extensive – and expensive – customization.

    I understand that burst of excitement you feel when you’ve finally gone ahead and decided to get that new site. If you’re going to develop it yourself, great, go right ahead. But if you’re going to hire a developer, please don’t buy anything yet! One of the things developers can be especially good at is figuring out which template will suit the structure and functionality you’ll want or need now as well as those which will allow future functionality without having to go back to the original drawing board.

  2. The biggest mistake people make is thinking there is a one-size-fits-all theme. There isn’t. If you don’t want to customize, then you need to find the design that most closely suits your needs and be happy with it until you are ready to take your site to the next level. Otherwise, roll up the sleeves and learn some coding, or put a little cash into tweaks to a theme that is pretty darn close.

    Thanks for the post!

  3. We do not build themes from scratch.

    Our business model is to give clients a list of vendors (we standardized on themes written for the Genesis framework) and tell them to ‘go fish.”

    Most often this works.

    Sometimes this does not work. They get simply overwhelmed by the choice of themes out there just for Genesis.

    When clients tell us they are bleary-eyed from looking at demos, we tell them to find any site that they like on the web and we’ll tell them if we can give them something similar… which most of the time is easy to do. If we can NOT find (buy) a Genesis theme that we can make structural modifications (i.e. get rid of boxes or add boxes, etc.) then we can always build one out with the Catalyst theme.

    For clients who want what is beyond the scope of what we do, we refer them to several shops that charge in the area of $3000- $5000 for custom product.

    At our price-point, we have to start with a theme that has most of the ‘structural’ features that the client wants. If she wants a blog theme, we’re not going to give her a ‘business’ theme. If she wants ‘edgy/ artsy’ we’re sending her to ZigZag Press and not StudioPress (which has more traditional corporate products as does Web-Savvy.)

    One of the keys to being profitable in this biz (for our shop) is to know what vendors have the kind of themes that will be a good ‘base’ for a build-out.

    (Note: I’m always scouring the web for Genesis theme vendors… and new Gen themes from current vendors… as well as bloggers who review Gen themes. If you are a theme developer, get (i.e ask!) someone like Carrie to say a few words about your new offerings. That is how people like me will find you and buy your product.)

  4. Hi Carrie,
    Thanks for reminding us of this Post. Excellent points.

    I always prefer doing custom, as it’s 10 times more fun, and I get to use much more of my skill, not to mention avoiding code that I dislike. 😉

    But I’ve modded lots of Themeforest themes, Thesis, Woo, and ones from many other vendors, though Genesis is my first choice. Although I often see code that I don’t like, it’s actually been valuable. When I’m out of the Genesis ghetto, and seeing how others do it, it’s quite interesting, and has actually made me understand WordPress better.

    To your point, now that “everybody” wants a website, and WordPress is ubiquitous, newbies simply believe the promise that “our theme can do anything you want, and costs $50!”, especially if the dev has decent ratings. Only then do they contact me for triage. 🙂


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