Transparency Report #15 – How to Lose $3,750 on Single Promotion

Welcome to the 15th edition of our transparency report (for April 2016). This is a series where I share everything happening at CodeinWP and ThemeIsle from a business point of view. Each month, I try to cover the most interesting goings-on, give you my opinions on *things* and share my plans for the next months. Click here to see the previous reports.

The good and the bad

One of the readers pointed out that I don’t share too many negative things or simply things that didn’t work in these reports.

Thinking on it for a couple of days … I have to agree, he’s totally right.

But I’m kind of on the fence with the idea itself.

On the one hand, knowing what kind of mistakes someone has made can help you not make them yourself. But on the other, there’s rarely something like a “mistake” when we’re talking online marketing or running a business.

I mean, let’s say that Method X didn’t work for me at all. Does it mean that it won’t work for you as well? Of course not.

Also, I believe that talking about what has worked brings more value, as you can try to tweak those ideas to your own business and replicate them somehow.

And lastly, okay, I have a personal bias talking about the good stuff. Mainly, it’s just the human nature – it always feels better to talk about what has worked than what hasn’t. Especially that I’m simply ashamed of a lot of our mistakes, and even thinking about them makes me cringe, not to mention exposing myself to the comments of others.

But here it goes anyway. 🙂

Let’s do it like this:

First, I’m going to share some of our worst mistakes – the things that were a real bummer. But to balance them out, I’m also going to mention some of our best decisions so far.

Awful deals

Let’s start big:

Several months ago, we attempted to promote ParallaxOne to 1 million+ of Pocket subscribers (email newsletter promotion). The price tag on this one was $3,750.

We got 171 new free user accounts out of it. That’s $22 per user.

And it’s not that Pocket isn’t good for promotion. But clearly, our product and our marketing message didn’t resonate with the average user of Pocket at the time. There could be plenty of reasons. Maybe just a number of small cogs that didn’t fire up, maybe a single large one.

Either way, didn’t play out well, and clearly a bad deal.

Then there was the promotion on the UXBooth newsletter. This time we got 88 free accounts for $950 ($11 per user).

We also tried lots of BuySellAds placements and ended up paying $10+ per free account.

AdWords isn’t playing out that well either. We’re spending somewhere around $2,000 a month – focusing on free themes – and averaging $1.5 per a free theme download.

Now, let’s make it clear what all of the above mean for me and what sort of message I’m trying to convey here.

This is not making me cringe because I was hustled for my money. Not at all. That would have been much easier to deal with. It’s because I know that it’s we who are to blame for all those efforts not working out. Had we prepared the promotions better, we would have surely gotten better results. I’m ashamed because it’s our fault.

(Note. As you can see, most of the efforts described above focus on our free themes. My current goal is to be one of the top sources of free WordPress themes and use that as leverage to get people onto our paid plans. There’s not that much direct promotion for our paid themes at the moment.)

Awful mistakes

When we originally launched ParallaxOne, we made the slug Parallax-One. This didn’t seem like a bad idea at the time, but as it turns out, it causes trouble when we decide to submit the theme to the WordPress.org directory. All themes there get their names lower-cased and have their slugs generated automatically based on that. So we would end up with two versions of the same theme (parallax-one, and Parallax-One). As a result, no child theme will ever work with both of them at the same time.

For something like 6 months, Disqus kept replacing our affiliate links on the CodeinWP blog … effectively “helping” us lose quite a lot of money. This is actually a rather old issue with Disqus. Here’s a post dated back to 2014 describing it.

For waaay too long, design hasn’t been our top focus when developing new themes. In hindsight, I consider this a huge mistake. And even more so when I’m reading through Array Themes’ redesign survey results, according to which, design is by far the most important factor that people consider when buying WordPress themes.

That one time, and for whatever reason (?), I decided that it would be a good idea to edit some code in Zerif Lite directly in the theme’s main GitHub. … And I forgot to add one “;

Literally, the most basic mistake there is in all of programming. This caused a fatal error for many people, and a waterfall of complaints to follow.

To mitigate any such risks in the future, we’re now protecting the production branch of our theme development, and we’re also planning to integrate Travis CI. Not to mention, I’ve stopped uploading any updates to WordPress.org myself.

You might already be seeing a pattern here…

I have a tendency to hurry things through (both in marketing and product), or release product updates in a hurry before analyzing all the possibilities in depth. I’m working on ways to improve this aspect of my nature, but my mind still tends to wander.

Well, at least I’m not causing any new fatal errors when editing theme files by hand. 🙂

Company-wise, we’ve also started paying more attention to better work prioritization. I mean, last year, we spent most of our time either fixing issues in our existing products or building new themes hurriedly without focusing on the design side of things so much. Eventually, I’ve started losing sleep over this.

Knowing that design is the secret sauce, we needed a change. So, in a rather radical step, we decided to do some spring cleaning and retire a ton of themes.

It’s not that those themes weren’t quality enough from a source code perspective, but the design was simply not on point, and I couldn’t see those themes as the top ones in their category. It just seemed better to put them out of their misery and build new ones that would be much better looking.

Just to shift the blame slightly, one of the reasons for some of the issues with the direction of our product work is that the WordPress.org rules seem to change more often than it takes us to release new themes.

For example, we’ve had two themes built on the same backend. They were both reviewed by the same reviewer only three weeks apart. One was fine. The other got a whole list of new “issues” to solve.

Then, there’s also the waiting queue at WordPress.org that’s somewhere around 6 months long for new themes, which impedes our product development a lot.

Okay, okay… I’m not really “shifting the blame.” I very well know that this is something that we could solve/get around with better workflow and perhaps better planning (for the future).

The good news is that we’re really close to hitting a “theme shop sweet spot,” so to speak – being able to release themes exclusively on our site. Of course, this doesn’t give us that many sales in the short term, but over time, it allows us to build better products because we don’t have to wait for any higher power to review our work in 6-month increments.

Great decisions

Okay, enough with the bad stuff. Let’s talk some of the best decisions we’ve made so far!

Invested in early partnerships. Having a good partner always pays off. For instance, Colorlib sent us 400,000 visitors just last year. Also, we continue to successfully seek out partnerships with Nimbus Themes Magazine and others. That being said, the key here is to find (a) a good partner, and even more importantly (b) a partnership deal that guarantees a win-win-win result (you, the partner, audience).

Invested in connected products. As it turns out for us, having 3 connected brands works extremely well, and probably better (I assume) than having just one brand that gets all the attention. Here’s what I mean. CodeinWP and JustFreeThemes are in the top 3 referrals for ThemeIsle, and combined they generated 23% of our free downloads last month.

Worked on our organic traffic, which now is our top acquisition channel, generating 25% of all downloads.

all-downloads

Translated our themes into 10+ languages. This is something I talked about in one of the previous reports back in December. We did this for a couple of reasons. First of all, it opens us up to international markets in a huge way. Then, there’s also the way that the featured/popular tabs work at WordPress.org right now. Basically, translated themes have a much better chance to appear there for visitors from non-English-speaking countries. This has had a great impact so far. For some of our themes, we’ve actually doubled the number of downloads (this and this). We spent around $4,000 on this in total (worked with Upwork contractors for the most part).

translated-themes

Did a lot of A/B testing. A/B testing is always a good investment, and that’s no matter if the test results are positive or negative. A/B testing simply erases guessing work from your routine, and allows you to verify your assumptions with raw data. For example, one of our recent tests involved a new landing page for Zerif PRO + inline checkout. At the time of writing this, that new version (image below) brings 16% more conversions than the previous one.

zerif-pro

Invested in professionals. As an entrepreneur, you might have second thoughts when it comes to hiring people who ask for what seems like a high rate, and especially if that rate is more than what you make per hour yourself (gets you think). But I really want to emphasize that it’s the right thing to do because the value delivered still makes it a great investment. Writers, bloggers, designers, developers … their rates are high for a reason.

New acquisitions!

As I mentioned multiple times in the past, acquisitions are one of the best ways to grow, regardless of your niche or market. They not only generate news in the industry, but also expose you to new audiences instantly, and let you pursue other branches in your market, which you might not have decided to go after with your main product.

So last month, we grew our big CodeinWP family by acquiring 2 great plugins from Brice Capobianco of b*web. The plugins:

FEEDZY RSS Feeds – great way for you to fetch external RSS feeds and use them on your site.

feedzy-rss-feeds

Adblock Notify – don’t want you readers to use adblockers? With this plugin, you can ask them politely to turn those blockers off.

adblock-notify

We haven’t done much with these plugins yet, but we have some great things planned for them!

Also, in our quest for learning and exploring new possibilities, we’ve acquired a cool project management tool called TeamClerk for $7,500. I really believe in it, and I think it can carve a nice niche for itself in a market that seems really crowded and features a lot of great tools.

I don’t have much time to take care of everything by myself, so I plan on partnering with someone to run this project. We already redesigned the site, and it’s now getting around 10 new accounts a day.

Check it out, see how it’s different!

teamclerk

Direction going forward

As a theme store, we’re looking to slowly transition to a “club membership” kind of approach (similar to what WPMU DEV and Elegant Themes are doing), and start charging for that membership annually (auto renewals).

Currently, our renewal rates are really low, and renewing itself is an awful experience for the user – they have to do everything manually and the process is not clear. I hope that auto renewals will solve that problem and also make things more predictable for us revenue-wise, which will in turn let us focus more on products and long-term strategies.

Of course, I do understand that in order to charge people annually we also need to find more ways to deliver continuous value to our customers, and – which is equally important – learn how to communicate that value better.

Some of the things on the agenda:

  • There’s already a new video tutorial section for our users, guiding them through everything they can do with our themes.
  • I hope that next month we’ll start publishing 1 article per day on our blogs.
  • We’re planning to start sending curated newsletters to our users on various topics.
  • We’re working on releasing new and better themes, and investing in product development in general (like I mentioned before).
  • We’re going to be releasing more updates for our best-selling themes + some child themes to make them even more versatile.
  • We’ve already hired 3 new members to our support team to cut our response time, and to help with creating more tutorials/docs.

Revenue breakdown – April 2016

Here are the numbers for April (from our in-house tracking system):

rev

That’s a small 3.9% increase over the last month.

(Reminder) I’m speaking at WordCamp!

Just wanted to remind all our European friends that I’m speaking at WordCamp Porto in just a couple of days!

My presentation has been approved by the organizers so it’s all set! 🙂

See you May 14-15 in Porto!

Thanks for reading and for supporting CodeinWP! Stay updated and get new reports delivered to you by subscribing here:

All edits and witty rewrites by Karol K.

Ionut Neagu

Love to travel, share and help others, I am working with WordPress at ThemeIsle.com. Passionated by Growth Hacking and the big things around me (trying to understand people, society, economy and our world ).
  • Hi Ionut,

    I checked your new application TeamClerk. It is just what I needed for my team. I will try free version for now. Congratulations on your April income. Cheers!

    • Thank you for your comment Tauqir, I am happy that you like TeamClerk, however there is still a lot more work to do there, any feedback is appreciated.

      Thanks!

  • Hi lonut,

    I have also shared your zerif-lite WordPress theme on my website : http://mycodingtricks.com/wp-theme/zerif-lite/ 😉

    Thanks
    Shubham

    P.S – I’ve landed here from Neil’s blog(QuickSprout).

  • Leo

    Well done Ionut! It’s inspiring to read articles like that for newbie rails-turned-into-WordPress/Laravel developers like myself. Keep it up!