[Latest] Starter Content Now Allowed in WordPress.org Themes

Okay, not “now” … more like “soon.” And it’s not only about WordPress.org themes either.

Here’s the TL;DR version:

The new beta of WordPress 4.7 allows themes to use starter content. That content can only be enabled on a spanking new site (a site that had basically nothing done to it other than having a theme installed).

Is that feature actually any useful (at the moment of writing this)? We say, “It’s a move in the right direction, but only somewhat functional at this point.”

Here’s more on this:

Why starter content?

Any form of starter content is something that theme developers have been dreaming about for what feels like since the dawn of time.

In a nutshell, if you’re a normal user who’s just looking for a nice theme to use on a shiny new site, you’ll quickly stumble upon a particular problem. In most cases, right after activating your new theme, you’ll realize that it looks nothing like the preview screenshot.

This is incredibly confusing for someone who’s new to WordPress … “Wait, why does that look nothing like what the screenshot promised?”

More or less, this is a classic “McDonald’s problem” – the Big Mac in the picture vs the Big Mac you actually get.

Over the years, theme developers have tried to battle this in a number of ways. Building custom installer scripts, displaying an on-screen configuration wizard, delivering XML packages with sample data, even starter plugins, and so on. However, most of these methods carry the same problem – they depend on the user to take certain actions after activating the theme, which not all users are either willing or want to do.

Fast forward to today, it seems that there’s finally some movement to get starter content integrated in the next version of WordPress:

How starter content works right now

Here’s the official thread. Reading through the info, a couple of things become apparent:

Starter content can only be put in the customizer when previewing the theme on a fresh install (the fresh_site flag set to 1). “Fresh install” is the keyword here, and actually a major limitation. That fresh_site flag gets cleared as soon as any post or page gets published / saved, widgets are modified, or the customizer state is saved.

In other words, starter content is only available on a spanking new site – a site that had basically nothing done to it other than having a theme installed. For example, if the user just goes to Posts and publishes something as a test … sorry, no starter content available from that point on.

There isn’t much more that can be decoded from that thread on core.trac.wordpress.org on its own, so we decided to do some more testing ourselves:

Experimenting with starter content

Here’s what Andrei Baicus, developer @ThemeIsle, found while performing some tests on the latest beta of WordPress 4.7:

This [starter content] is only available in the beta version right now. While we might see some changes here and there, this seems to be the final form of what you can do with it for now:

  • You can place some default widgets in sidebars, but only with default settings. It doesn’t seem like you can, for example, change the title of a widget or put some specific content inside.
  • You can create default starter pages. For example, the new default theme for WordPress 4.7 – Twenty Seventeen, has 5 such pages. Yours could have its own set of pages like that too. This is probably one of the most useful aspects of this starter content mechanism.
  • You can set theme options and theme mods. For example, you can show a certain page as the static front page. However, you apparently can’t set a page template for those pages (you can just use standard WordPress pages).
  • You can set any customizer option to a new default value.
  • You can set starter menus and put some starter pages / posts in them, plus you can add them to menu locations.

(If we missed anything important here, please don’t hesitate to speak up in the comments.)

This is all a work in progress at this point. It may or it may not even make its way into the final 4.7 release. We hope it will, but you never know…

We also hope that the idea of starter content is going to be expanded to a more comprehensive form in the next iterations of WordPress. And if not 4.7, then maybe 4.8 is going to be the first fully starter-content-enabled WordPress version.

In the meantime, we’re excited to experiment further with this, and see how far we can take the idea when working on WordPress themes.

Finally, we really have to give it to Helen Hou-Sandí – the lead of the 4.7 release for moving the ball in the right direction. Earlier this year, Helen announced that she will be tackling the issues with initial site setup primarily, and it looks like she means business!

One thing’s for sure, the current default mechanism of theme demos, previews, and theme content needs to be changed. WordPress has simply grown to cater to a much broader audience than a couple of years ago, and that audience is rarely satisfied with standard blog layouts and blank blog pages. Especially with things like Wix lurking in the dark (pun intended).

Custom homepages and starter content are the bare minimum that a theme needs in order to really give its user a good starting point for further customization.

But what do you think? Is this new starter content mechanism likely to impact how developers build their themes? Also, is this a good direction for the end users?

  • This is definitely a step in the right direction, giving the newbie a great starting block by swapping out content for their own

  • Matthew Cain

    I hope this step would allow more beginner, first-time WP users to have a more ‘gentle’ experience with WordPress. The absence of starter content, and the inability to customize the theme as per demo are two things that people find most confusing.