Affiliate Marketing Problems and Fake DMCA … The Joys of Running a Theme Business – Transparency Report #38

Welcome to the 38th edition of the monthly transparency report (for March 2018). In this series, I talk about the latest goings-on in the business, our plans, challenges, and what’s on the agenda for the next couple of months. Click here to see the previous reports.

As I might have already mentioned once or twice in these reports, one of my main goals right now is to introduce more clarity into my planning, and especially when it comes to figuring out the direction the business is heading.

I’m making an effort to maintain a clear picture and think more strategically – not only on an annual basis like before, but rather on a weekly/monthly basis.

While this sounds all fine and dandy, it’s not exactly that easy to execute. In order to achieve that, first I’m trying to disconnect more from the day-to-day tasks and get more rest. This feels kind of bad and I feel lazy for not being as active as I used to be – working on multiple things at once. But I guess I’ll see how it plays out over time. 🙂

Here are the first fruits of this approach:

Brands, naming and what is it that “CodeinWP” actually stands for?

I guess some (if not all) of you might be a bit confused as to what the CodeinWP brand actually stands for, or what it is, even.

How is it different from ThemeIsle? Is ThemeIsle a CodeinWP product? Or the other way around?

To be honest with you, it’s not like we thought these things through. Mainly, we just identified ourselves with the most successful of our brands and went with it.

We did have some CodeinWP t-shirts initially, and we were on a path to make that the focus of everybody, but then ThemeIsle started becoming more successful, so we felt that it should receive its own identity and the main spotlight.

So as I’m writing this now, the company is “gathered” around ThemeIsle, both in terms of where we spend most of our time, as well as when it comes to releasing merch like t-shirts, stickers, sponsoring WordCamps and other stuff.

What’s so confusing about this is that ThemeIsle is only one of the things that we do, and it’s not an umbrella brand either. The umbrella is somewhere else, actually, so we want to make that clear, finally.

We’ll be taking two steps to make that happen:

  1. Revive VertiStudio.com – which was the main domain name for the original company when it started – and use it as our corporate site. It’ll host things like team, careers, products, handbook, etc.
  1. Clarify how ThemeIsle.com is different from CodeinWP.com plus what CodeinWP actually is. If you go to the main domain right now, you’ll see a somewhat surprising “PSD to WordPress” offer, which we no longer actually do. Again, confusing, right?
CodeinWP

Okay, so no.1 is fairly straightforward. We just need to move stuff around from other websites to VertiStudio and consolidate everything. No.2 is a bit more challenging so I came with a mock-up:

hand mockup

Sorry if you can’t read that. No wonder my primary school teacher had the habit of taking my workbook and pulling it apart in front of the class … something about it being unreadable. Anyways…

Here are the key details from that mock-up:

  • Make it clear that CodeinWP is a hub for professionals/agencies working with WordPress.
  • As part of that, improve the CodeinWP newsletter and think about it as a stand-alone product.
  • Launch a Slack community for WordPress professionals.
  • Launch a jobs section.
  • Launch professionals-friendly tools.

Now, the word “hub” is very general, and this is reflected in the content that we offer on this blog, as well as the audiences that we’re trying to reach. Not everything here is WordPress-specific, and we often tackle other areas (example 1, example 2).

With that said, our ThemeIsle efforts will be more focused towards end-users and beginners, trying to help them out with specific WordPress-related challenges. Of course, some topics will overlap, but that’s OK.

To be honest, this whole brand clarity thing has bothered me for a long time, but I just didn’t have the drive to fix it. Even our traffic stagnating around 1.5 years ago didn’t motivate me much to shift things around. Then finally in March this year we dropped by another ~15%, and this was probably the kick in the butt I needed to take action.

Overall, I guess that despite our great content, not having a clear value proposition and a deceiving homepage discourages people from talking more about what we do here.

The WordPress theme market is changing

There’s a couple of things that I’d like to cover here … third-party theme authors, page builder themes, Gutenberg, just to name a few.

So after some trial and error, we’ve managed to implement a working and stable workflow of how to distribute themes of other authors on ThemeIsle.com (1, 2). I guess the model kinda works if we subsidize it until sales start to kick off. However, the scale is pretty small. Most of our customers, even if they get the “all themes” packages, are mostly interested in the premium version of the free theme that they are upgrading from.

Hopefully, in the long term this will improve – once users will want to switch to a new theme. But it’s still a long shot, so for now we don’t plan on adding new authors, and instead focus on working towards making sure the partnership works well for the existing ones.

If you follow the trends, you’ve noticed the growing popularity of “page builder” themes. However, I always thought it didn’t make sense for us to create a new theme like that. My reasoning was that once Gutenberg becomes advanced enough, we will simply transform the front pages of Hestia or Zerif into Gutenberg-based pages – so the themes will technically become “simple/page builder” themes somewhat naturally.

But looking at the current state of the market once more, it seems that we’ll continue to see two different types of users regardless if Gutenberg ever becomes a thing or not.

  • There will always be people who want a blank theme that integrates with page builders nicely (and ideally bundled with some templates and widgets),
  • and users who want to quickly launch a one-page site without any extra plugins.

So in the end, we will be looking to launch a new theme after all. Ideally leveraging the existing work that we have done with Hestia and OrbitFox. With the shrinking themes market (Nicolas from OceanWP released his revenue data for example) this is our next bet in terms of market direction.

Learning from the things that go wrong

They say you learn a lot from bad experiences. So last month I learned a lot indeed…

1. Fake DMCAs

I didn’t know this was still a thing, especially in 2018, but weirdly:

A couple of weeks ago somebody sent a DMCA request to Google, listing 162 URLs allegedly containing a ThemeForest theme for download. But the thing is that among those 162 URLs there were also 5-10 quality resources on various WordPress-related topics. A classic black hat SEO attack…

From our site, they listed this post.

To be clear, that resource doesn’t even mention the theme in question.

divi, avada, x theme

So how did Google respond? Yep, you guessed it, they removed our page from search completely and just notified me of the fact via Search Console.

It then took me 5 tries to file a counter-complain that they would accept. They kept saying that they need more information, which is weird considering that it was pretty clear there wasn’t any infringement.

Overall, we were out from search for around 2 months.

So … I guess if you’re struggling with a competitor who always seems to outrank you, just DMCA them. 🙂

On a more serious note, keep your finger on the pulse and check what’s going on in your Google Search Console regularly. You want to be able to notice problems like that in time.

2. Bad affiliate partnerships

In short, one of our partners decided to pretty much lower our referral commissions 4x on the spot … and retro-actively. Considering the effort required and the structure of the partnership, it hurt our plans quite a bit.

My learning is that when somebody comes to you asking to promote their thing and offers a deal, based on the amount of work on your side, make sure you get them to sign a contract locking down the deal for X months.

For instance, I put more time into our partnerships with third-party theme authors and we clarified things like that. Since it takes us some time to get the partnership going and list the themes effectively, the partner can’t cancel for 6 months.

Although this shouldn’t happen often, there can be some edge cases where an author, for example, decides to sell their business after 1 month and changes their plans. Better to be clear and protected if that happens.

3. Bad affiliate programs, again

This happened few months back. One big partner of ours decided to put a rule in place for our site, forcing a redirection to a page of their choice. So, for example, if we would link to site.com, they would add a rule saying if referrer=codeinwp.com, redirect to site.com/whatever/

Why did they do that? Because they wanted to bring a new offer in front of our audience, an offer that we didn’t want to recommend since we thought it was not that good.

The learning here is to have good systems in place to monitor revenues – same as you monitor and send alerts when traffic drops. In the case of affiliate programs, that’s why having 100 accounts is not practical and it’s much better to use a single platform for gathering the funds. For us, Impact.com has been the best such solution lately.

As you surely noticed, I left out the names on purpose. I want these reports to be more about learnings and not about shaming other businesses. Most of these things turned out “OK” in the end, anyway.

It is also important to keep in mind that it’s never about other people wanting to screw you, but rather about a lack of communication. They have their goals, you have yours, and it’s often hard for everyone to be able to understand everyone else’s situations.

Even though this doesn’t sound too optimistic, before going into any partnerships, try to think about what can go wrong and address those scenarios in writing. Nobody wants those situations to actually take place, but there might be frustrating edge cases where both parties are “right” and then such agreements prove useful.

Would love to find out what you think about things like this and your own learnings from similar situations. Feel free to share in the comments.

Okay, that’s all I have for you this month. As always, thanks for reading and for supporting us! Stay updated and get new reports delivered to you by subscribing here:

All edits and witty rewrites by Karol K.