I just got back from Pressnomics, a fantastic WordPress business conference put on in Tempe, AZ by the folks at Page.ly. If you know me, you know that I am constantly attending new conferences, because I love the opportunity to learn and connect, and this one did not disappoint. This past week contained some of the best conversations and connections I’ve ever experienced at a WordPress event, but one recurring motif stood out to me that I needed to share.
During Thursday’s panel on Commercialization in the WordPress Ecosystem (featuring experts like Pippin Williamson, Carl Hancock, Cory Miller, and Helen Souness from Envato) the topic of commoditization came up. Specifically, how do you build a commercial digital product, especially one built using the GPL, that adds value in a way that is distinguishable from its competitors? It’s an interesting question, but even more interesting is the fact that most of the people on stage were quick to dismiss commercial themes as being too easily commoditized, and went on to discuss adding value by developing an app framework using plugins to create advanced functionality on top of WordPress.
Though I knew that the majority of the expertise on the panel was in building plugins, I was a little surprised at this seemingly offhand dismissal of an entire sector of the WordPress commercial marketplace. Naturally, I wanted to discuss this further, so I tweeted out a request for conversation:
Wanting to get ppls thoughts about building non-commodotized commercial themes w/o adding excess functionality, come find me #pressnomics
— Michelle Schulp (@marktimemedia) October 18, 2013
WordPress conferences being what they are, everyone is very engaged on Twitter, so I got several responses back that led to some great conversations with members of the WooThemes team (thanks for lunch, by the way! I had a great time) the guys from Organic Themes, and other attendees that either build or use commercial themes.
Several common ideas emerged during the course of these conversations:
- A majority of the buyers are B2B, meaning the people who purchase the themes are not the end users, but rather developers or designers building a site for their clients.
- The theme marketplace is struggling with bloat from overuse of shortcodes, excess functionality built into the theme, and overstyling that makes it hard to work with these themes and gives them a bad reputation.
- Themes have to walk a fine line between being viewed as “boring” and being able to be adapted to various circumstances.
- If the established theme marketplaces could start over now, they’d build leaner themes with less functionality and more focus on design.
If you’re involved at all in the WordPress community, you’re aware that there has been a wave of support for “best practices” on building themes that are going to be distributed to the masses, the most important being keeping form separate from function. A theme should control the way a website looks and how it lays out information, but anything that makes a website DO something or creates new types of data (custom post types, etc) belongs in a plugin, separate from the theme, so that the design can be changed in the future without losing access to that data and functionality.
There has been a lot of pushback from some established commercial theme authors, especially on sites like ThemeForest where the marketplace ecosystem evolved separately from the WordPress community at large. These theme authors argue that they are building “complete website solutions” for their clients, who aren’t interested in our debates on themes vs. plugins, and just want a website that works without a lot of effort.
Kiko Doran, Josh Broton, and I are starting a project called 3themes with the hope of addressing this fundamental question: can a theme that is built for developers using best practices be successful in the commercial space? Can a commercial theme add value without adding functionality and bloat?
3themes is a unique collaboration because we will also be documenting it every step of the way: recording our weekly meetings on Google Hangout in the form of a podcast, blogging about our process on the website, hosting code on GitHub, voicing our thoughts on Twitter, etc. We want this not only to be a case study in the commercial theme marketplace, but in working as a small distributed team and problem solving just as we would for a client. The hope is to create some dialogue in the WordPress community, as well as just have some fun and see what great things we can build together.
We’re in the early stages now, with step 1 being “build our own brand and website for this project” and I encourage you to follow along and contribute your thoughts! Check out our first meeting below (two parts due to technical difficulties). We’re hoping to make this a weekly event around 8:30pm CST on Tuesday nights if you want to tune in, and as we build out the website we’ll have more opportunities for people to join in the dialogue.