Transparency Report #27 – Stop Building New WordPress Themes?

Welcome to the 27th edition of the monthly transparency report (for April 2017). This series is all about what’s been going on at CodeinWP and ThemeIsle that relates to the business side of things. I try to talk about new products, marketing plans, the team, and everything else that is relevant (and fun). Click here to see the previous reports.

WordPress themes are the core of our business. This should come as no surprise, right? However, lately, I’ve started questioning the future of themes in the WordPress ecosystem as a whole. And I don’t just mean the future of the themes department in our house, but the future of themes overall.

This is the kind of stuff I’ve been pondering for the bigger part of last month. But it all started with our own backyard:

When Zerif Lite got suspended from the official repository a while ago (I know, I’ve been talking about this for what seems like ages, sorry; but it’s still relevant) causing our themes-related revenue to drop two-fold, it’s when I started to question and improve our theme development process more seriously. However, it seemed that whenever I came up with a sensible plan, some WordPress.org changes came along making the execution impossible. Oh well.

Long story short, we finally came up with an overall better approach to handle things. More or less, we devoted more resources to building better focused themes that are tested more thoroughly, and then started to distribute them via more than just one website.

The core change that we made was to use Grunt to generate individual versions of the same theme based on what we needed it for. It’s how our LITE theme versions are made nowadays based on the PRO version’s iteration. Some of this Bogdan Preda discussed in one of the recent posts on the blog.

We released Hestia, TheMotion and Belise. We decided to distribute them via WordPress.org (the free versions), our website, and also on marketplaces like ThemeForest.

In a nutshell, the most significant changes that we did were: (a) make development more uniform via Grunt, and (b) distribute through more than one channel.

So, how did that play out for us? I think it’s a good moment to look into the process and see if everything is going in the direction we wanted. But we’ll get to that… First:

As I mentioned at the beginning, maybe we have a bigger fish to fry here, and the topic of themes overall is soon to be disrupted. Here’s what I mean:

1. Gutenberg, the customizer, and Squarespace

The no.1 question, at least for me, is how WordPress themes will operate and look with Gutenberg in the core.

In all honesty, just looking at the current alpha version of Gutenberg you might not be that excited. And don’t get me wrong … I think that it’s a beautiful blog post editor tool, but not much more than that…

Will it ever be able to create complex layouts, like the Zerif homepage, for example (the following screenshot)? Probably not. However, it will likely act as the foundation for other plugins that might build custom blocks on top of it. And this can, very well, be quite exciting.

Zerif theme
Right now, Gutenberg might not look capable-enough, but if we look at the whole picture (read this), it’s apparent that the editor is just one piece of a bigger puzzle. For once, it will be complemented by the customizer, which will surely make the combo a lot more powerful.

I’m not entirely sure how these two could work together – Gutenberg and the customizer – but I have a general idea. More or less, Gutenberg looks very much like the Squarespace editor (at least to me), and there’s high chance it will go in the same direction, UI-wise.

For example, here’s what the individual blocks in the Squarespace editor look like right now:

Squarespace editor

After adding, say, a form, you get two new parts: (#1) is the editor section – this is where you can see the preview and where you can tweak the main settings of everything, and (#2) is what seems like a customizer sidebar where you can get a lot more in-depth with your tweaks:

Squarespace element customizer

In Gutenberg, that customizer section might open when you click on something like a settings icon, for instance:

Gutenberg customizer

It’s still a bit confusing as to where stuff like widgets, shortcodes, sidebars, and etc. could go at the moment. However, that might not even be something we should worry about long term. In an interview, Matt Mullenweg mentioned that, in the future, the interface may all come down to individual blocks, which would render things like widgets obsolete.

Nevertheless, I do recommend you to create a Squarespace account and experiment with the editor. Being totally honest with you, it’s amazingly well done in some aspects, and getting something similar into the WordPress realm could surely benefit the end user.

2. The current state of page builders

I have to tell … I’m really impressed!

I’ve been looking into various page builders a lot lately, and I’m really surprised how fast things are improving in that department. There are already five+ great products in the market, and they all continue to get better and better!

Out of the bunch, I want to highlight Elementor. Really check it out if you haven’t already! In my opinion, they’ve nailed it in terms of UX and how easy it is to work with the tool!

That being said, the Squarespace experience is still far – far! – better. 🙂

Especially in terms of how content editing is done, the design, and how it all feels like one concise website … rather than the pairing of WordPress + page builder.

Anyway, I expect the page builders market to continue getting more and more exciting as new things come along. For example, Divi just released an update geared at reorganizing the options to make your customizations much more intuitive. Options are also searchable now – if you know the option’s name, you can just find it via a search bar. This, although seems simple, is a great improvement for the overall user experience.

3. What’s our next step in terms of theme development?

Okay, with all that being said, what’s the next step for us when it comes to theme development?

The issue is twofold:

a) In the short term

We’ll gradually stop working on new themes.

Instead, we’ll focus on the existing ones, making sure that they play well with the major page builders, Gutenberg, etc. At the same time, we’ll keep them simple enough for people to be able to start working with them right after activation – minimizing the learning curve.

The main themes we’re going to focus on here are Zerif and Hestia.

zerif homepage
hestia homepage

Furthermore, we’re also planning to create various additional templates using different page builders. That way, the user will be able to just import, say, a landing page template for Elementor that has been optimized to work with his/her Zerif theme. This will present a nice option / starting point to extending your site without having to do everything on by hand. Plus, it’s always easier to modify a template than it is to build something from scratch.

Side thought. Like it or not, but most of the current distribution channels work based on “what’s popular,” and that’s also how people are wired for the most part. Therefore, it just makes much more sense to focus on your one – main – product and keep expanding it in various ways, rather than building multiple smaller products. This is more or less what we did with Zerif. We don’t have any plans to bloat the theme or anything, though. We will rather work on creating various tutorials, videos, templates, and other resources that people can use together with the theme to extend their sites.

b) In the long term

Among other things, the model above is meant to prepare us for Gutenberg and other similar solutions that might come in the future. Basically, if we manage to successfully integrate the existing builders, everything that comes after that – including Gutenberg – is hopefully going to be just another builder-like tool. So it won’t be a shock of any kind, forcing us to redo most of the themes’ code in order to make it work.

I believe that working on this model will help us understand the whole page building experience better, plus how people use page builders in the real world. For instance, which content blocks turn out to be important for small business sites, which for blogs, etc.? This sort of knowledge can help us when developing new templates.

Of course, I can’t be certain whether the above is the right approach to go for, but the results will surely be interesting. In six months or so, I will be back analyzing everything again and evaluating what the impact has been.

What we’re doing to resonate better with our customers

Another thing I’ve realized when doing all this brainstorming is that we’ve had no dedicated “user happiness” person in the team (for lack of a better term). I’ve kept delaying this, but I hope we’ll finally manage to have somebody from the team dedicate their time to interacting with our users and learning/understanding who they are and how we can solve their problems better.

I see a lot of value and potential in a position like that since it gives us raw data and insights into what our customers really need vs what we think they need. In the past year or so, it was mainly just me throwing ideas around based on a hunch, rather than having any data to back them up. This has not been ideal, and I know that.

Speaking of researching the market and making our offering in tune with what the user expects, we saw that ADP on ThemeForest has brought the prices down a bit overall. Currently, the average price of a theme is $49 (themes sold; not themes listed). So, following the trend, we’ve decided to do some minor changes to keep our value proposition appealing. Specifically:

  • Include third-party themes in our membership plan (something I discussed in the previous report)
  • Include plugins in the yearly membership as well
  • Lower the prices to $89 / year and $249 / lifetime
  • Add a ton more features to the current themes

Also, to be more fair to our current users, we’ve decided to discontinue all coupon codes higher than 10% as well as the auto-renewal discounts for new users.

I wonder what you think about that new game-plan of ours overall. Do you think that page builders will play a big role in the WordPress landscape of tomorrow? Gutenberg? Or maybe something entirely else? And more importantly, should theme stores adapt this heavily or just continue doing their thing?

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.

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 ).
  • Hey David,

    I agree with you comment regarding audience overlap, our main focus will be Hestia, but since we’ll add those templates to Elementor library, Zerif users can benefit as well + there are existing users on Zerif who needs some love 🙂

    Regarding the page builders side, we’ll focus on both beaver/elementor but we need to start somewhere and the concept part will be shared by both.

    Thank you for commenting here and leaving your input!