Transparency Report #20 – Do You Need WordPress.org to Promote Your Themes

Welcome to the 20th edition of our monthly transparency report (for September 2016). In this series, I focus on different aspects of running a WordPress theme business, including our strategies, methods, wins, and struggles. In short, this is where you can learn what’s been going on behind the scenes at ThemeIsle and CodeinWP. Click here to see the previous reports.

Our most popular free theme, post WordPress.org

If you’re following the blog, you might have noticed that our most popular free theme – Zerif Lite – got suspended from the WordPress.org directory mid September.

A couple of days after that, I published our transparency report, where I covered the whole thing somewhat. By “somewhat” I mean that I tried to focus on the theme directory itself, and present how we can all improve it to serve theme developers better … or at least what sort of changes we could propose to make it so. I didn’t want to focus on the fine details of the suspension itself and turn this into a “their fault vs our fault” kind of exchange.

Another couple of days later, WordPress Tavern picked up the story and published their own piece describing the situation. And THAT story turned out to be a really lively one, to say the least. There have been 145 comments so far. Many of them good and empathic. Many of them negative.

Nevertheless, many readers have wondered how this all works, and how we’re going to move forward.

So in this report, I will try to shed some light on this, and also share my biggest learnings from this whole thing so far:

1. Moving forward

Before I get to that, let’s start somewhere else:

I didn’t mention this before, but Zerif Lite got suspended exactly 2 weeks before I was supposed to move out to a new country. As it turned out, I had to deal with the articles, comments, community responses, and etc. while waiting for my flight or being on the move in general.

Why is this relevant?

Whether you want it or not, your personal life sometimes affects your professional life, and vice versa. Or, maybe even more accurately, if you’re an entrepreneur, there’s no work-life balance as such. Yes, you can force yourself not to work in the evenings, or get off your computer after 6PM, or whatever. But the fact is that you’re still thinking about work. There’s no stopping that. Your brain is always at work.

So, the whole Zerif situation was unfortunate for me because I originally wanted to take some time off in September/October and not to worry about work all that much. Well, tough luck…

Eventually, I ended up taking the vacation anyway, and decided that the first thing we’re going to do about the suspension was actually “do nothing.”

And this is not me being lazy. I needed to give myself some time to reflect on the thing that happened and the possible ways to go forward. Acting on impulse isn’t always the best idea in that kind of situations. “Think three times, act once” is usually a better approach. And I honestly didn’t have the energy to do all that thinking properly late September.

Let me just add that I am very grateful for the team’s reaction to this situation, and that lots of people in the community offered their help. You guys rock!

2. Solutions

We’ve been talking a lot about the possible solutions we could implement to eventually get Zerif Lite back on WordPress.org, while not causing a huge inconvenience to the theme’s current users – the main problem we’re facing is figuring out how to change certain areas of the theme’s functionality without breaking down existing websites.

For instance, one of the main issues with the last WordPress.org version of the theme was that it used so-called “faux content types” (click here to learn more about this specific problem). There’s a handful of possible solutions to this, but they all have similar consequences.

In short, a drastic change – one where we do everything in a single step and make the theme work just like the review team wants it to – would break existing websites. So the only solution is to make it into a two-step process:

  1. Create a temporary solution that moves the faux content types to a page, so that they’re no longer “faux content types,” yet remain working somewhat the same from a user’s point of view. At the same time, introduce a companion plugin and encourage the existing users to activate it.
  2. Remove the “faux content types” entirely.

If the review team accepts a structure like that, it might be a great solution that will leave the current user base unaffected. And naturally, all new users won’t come across any problems whatsoever.

I hope to dig into this more in the upcoming months and see if we can find an acceptable way out of this for everybody.

3. Learnings

I was a bit surprised that lots of people saw my response as complaining. I think it’s still hard to grasp that the main goal of these reports is to share our journey and learnings along the way. We are not talking about our revenue to brag, or complaining that we’ve lost much of it due to the suspension. Sans the personal stuff, most of the things I’m sharing here are just facts, and I hope that this helps others running similar businesses, plus it also helps us keep track of how we’re doing from month to month.

I think that the most important thing I’ve learned here, and also a bit from the reactions of others, is that not caring about profits in the short term helps you see the big picture of what your company should focus on, and what not to lose sleep over. Granted, that book about Henry Ford that I’ve read recently has helped me a lot.

And, of course, I am a little stressed out that we’ve just lost 50%+ of our revenue. However, I am much more stressed out about things like staying relevant in the industry quality-wise, aka. how do we get even better at building themes, so that they can remain on par with the leaders in the market. This is much more important in the long run than the current revenue loss.

It’s also very important to always have the big picture in your head and question yourself all the time, not only when bad things happen. Questions like: “Why am I doing this? Is it a problem a year from now?” help a lot, and they can really give you a perspective on things.

4. Facts & data

The number of people trying to buy Zerif Pro decreased almost 3 times after the WordPress.org suspension. To be precise, 2.8 times.

Looking back, we can now say that around 100 sales per week were driven by our listing in the WordPress.org directory.

As others have said before, you might think that just having your theme on the WordPress.org’s popular list will bring you traffic and sales. But that’s not entirely true. For example, we still have another theme on the “most popular” list – ShopIsle – but the pro version gets only around 10 sales per week.

ShopIsle theme

In our case, it seems that things like copy, design, market-product fit, the offering itself + all the marketing traits mean something like a 10x boost. In other words, even once you get your theme on the popular list, the work that you do afterwards – optimize your premium offering – really means a lot.

Since Zerif Lite isn’t on WordPress.org now, we have 4,200 active sites running it, based on the downloads from our site directly. I believe that lots of those are new users. Unfortunately, out of the original 300k user base, very very few managed to get our update and migrate their copy of the theme from WordPress.org to us.

It may be that people aren’t really interested in updating themes overall. However, still, the number is low, and that is something that worries me.

Due to the fact that now we rank 1st for “Zerif Lite” in Google, and the theme isn’t in the repo, the searches have doubled, and we also get much more clicks (see below). It’s still not a big deal, though, considering the overall volume of traffic we were getting previously, but it’s helpful nonetheless.

traffic to Zerif Lite

Note. If you’re using Zerif Lite and you haven’t switched to the newest version yet, make sure to read this.

Improving our development process

Speaking of moving forward, I mentioned that the main thing to focus on is making our themes even better. The step we’re taking right now to make that happen is moving to an improved development process.

Our developers have started using Grunt for theme development, and it seems to make things more streamlined for everybody. Here’s Marius Cristea, head of development, on the topic:

We use Grunt to maintain both versions of our themes – lite and pro – from the same codebase. For instance, when a release is made, or a feature/fix needs to be tested, we use some Grunt magic to deploy the changes to test environments, or to send the new versions directly to users – both free and pro.

In the same fashion, we make sure that our code is linted and that it uses universal WordPress standards – the required checks for that are all being made via several Grunt tasks.Marius Cristea

Also, we’ve got back to using Redbooth for task planning and management. We parted our ways with it in the past, but right now the tool is getting more and more features, which has eventually convinced us to make it our main daily operations manager.

You should check it out too. It’s one of the main alternatives in the market. Just in case Asana, Trello or JIRA aren’t working for you.

Lastly, I’m happy to let you know that a big part of the team will be attending WordCamp US in December this year. Plus, many of us have signed up as volunteers.

Unfortunately, we had to scale down our WordCamp involvement a bit, due to the revenue hit. In the past, we sponsored WordCamps in Bucharest, Milano, Seattle, Nashik, Bhopal, and Toronto. I believe that being a sponsor, or at least volunteering, not only helps the community in general, but also exposes our brand to the wider public, and helps them associate ThemeIsle with WordPress overall.

I’m afraid we don’t have any hard data to back this up (I doubt there ever could be), but it seems that this is exactly what the big players in the WordPress space do when sponsoring nearly every WordCamp (companies like Jetpack, Yoast, hosting firms).

Theme marketing how-to

One of the most requested topics in these transparency reports (according to my previous Twitter survey) is marketing. And more specifically, theme marketing.

I think it’s about time to share a word or two on this!

Keep in mind, though, that this is just my point of view – a mere one business owner’s strategy.

First off, I think that the best way to market a WordPress theme business is to actually market your main free theme.

In other words, even if you want to eventually offer a wider catalog of themes, I would recommend to focus on a “lite” version of one of your themes first … as counterintuitive as this perhaps sounds.

Even if you have pro versions of your themes ready, don’t mention them in the first 6 months or so, for a couple of reasons:

(The most important reason) If you focus on just one product first, you can learn more about what people *actually* want, and not what you think they want.

Let’s face it, if you attempt to launch your store with 10 themes in the catalog from the get-go, then you’re mostly assuming what people want. If you start with one, and then improve it with time before moving onto other themes, this is when you learn and base your steps on actual user feedback.

Another reason is that having a good free theme as your flagship will help you get more traction, but only if you don’t try to sell your premium product too hard.

In our case, the thing we found with Zerif Lite was that in the 7th month on the market, the theme made more than in the first 6 months combined. So you don’t really lose money in the long run if you wait with any premium theme promotion. You’re just trading short-term results for long-term ones.

In order to get more people on board in that initial period, you can even let everybody download the free product without any email, or “tweet to pay,” or whatever. Basically, after launching, your focus should be on getting the product to as many people as possible. Get real feedback. Learn how to make the product kick ass. And only then focus on how you can generate sales.

In the end, I am hopeful for Zerif’s future, and consider this as an opportunity to make our products and development processes better. Obstacles like this will happen, and the sole fact that they do happen isn’t as important. The real test is not how to avoid them, but how to deal with them in a way that lets you grow in the long run. And this sometimes means a short-term hit.

As always, 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.