This past weekend, notable, highly respectable [and former] Automattician Philip Arthur Moore wrote a fantastic article that’s been making it’s way through the usual suspects and circles entitled We’re Ruining WordPress (This Needs To Stop).
But in the hopes that some of those of you who read this blog are fellow bloggers, publishers, readers, designers, developers, and so on, I wanted to link it here with you to make sure you didn’t miss it and because I hope it resonates with you.
In short: If you’ve yet to read it, I highly recommend it – it short, poignant, and will likely strike a chord with many of you who are looking to contribute to the WordPress economy, have a business within the WordPress economy, or who enjoy following the WordPress economy.
Many of the things that Philip outlines in his post is what we’ve seen happen in other economies, too: Just look at Google Play or the App Store and how little apps cost. Games that used to run us $30 – $50 on a given system now cost $4.99 to $9.99 and people still complain (and it’s not even worth talking about in-app purchases).
Anyway, as much as I enjoy writing about WordPress and the various facets that come with it, and as much as I enjoy doing so with the occasional meme and what not, this particular post hit home with me because I’ve been working in the WordPress economy for several years at this point, I’m getting ready to push forward with a new effort, and because I’ve been thinking about this for the last few months (and clearly more so over the last few days), I thought I’d write a WordPress theme developer introspective of sorts on how it feels to be a part of the WordPress theme developer economy, its challenges, what I want to see change, and what I plan to begin doing as soon as possible.
My WordPress Theme Developer Introspective
For the last few years, I’ve been involved with working in WordPress regarding blogging, plugins, speaking, and themes. Though it’d be fun to talk about all of these – and to hear your comments on all of them, as well – this is strictly about WordPress themes.
Specifically, these are my thoughts as it relates to working in the WordPress theme industry then, now, and how I plan to move forward given some of my takeaways from this article (and a few others I’ve read, too).
1. Pricing Must Change
There’s very little to say about this that hasn’t been said, but to say that we’re facing a gold rush that’s leading us to the bottom of the barrel is an understatement, and I’m comfortable saying that not only because of observation, but because of experience.
I’ve had the pleasure of working on Standard (prior to its acquisition) both for WordPress.com and for WordPress.org, working on the next iteration of Live Theme, and have I’ve been selling Mayer in WordPress.com for approximately one quarter.
The common denominator among all of these themes (among others that I’ve yet to mention) is that the pricing was too low for not just the amount of work that went into the products, but for what the themes actually provided – or the solutions they provided – for end users.
The problem is that we’ve conditioned our customers to expect powerful features, amazing designs, and truly high-end experiences for far less than said things are worth.
2. Simplicity Is Complex
Of course, everyone knows that there are two sides to every story; however, I’m not at all interested in talking about what theme marketplaces are doing what, how they’re doing it, who we should look to for a positive model, and who shouldn’t be.
Instead, try to sift through all of that ether, fog, and noise and think about and focus on some of the most attractive, best functioning themes that you’ve used – and yes, this will be different for each of us – and the odds are that the work that has gone into making it effortless to achieve a seemingly simple task is likely the product of skilled programming.
This means that a team (or perhaps even a single person) has sat down, worked worked their way through the problem on notebook paper, devised a solution – or likely a set of solutions – to the problem, painstakingly implemented them, all so that the customer and toggle a checkbox so that pages are programmatically created, populated, given a template, and so on.
Not only does this go back to the first point, but leads into the second point, as well.
3. Themes Are Software (Treat Them as Such)
I know – when it comes to compiled languages, interpreted languages, and all that jazz, there are semantics that come into play as to what some programmers consider software.
For example, some developers think software is anything that is compiled to binary code. Some people think that HTML can be considered software. Regardless of where you fall in the stack, one common thing that software – however you may define it – has is a lot of moving parts that work ideally in harmony to produce something from the sum of its parts.
Ultimately, they all work together in order to produce the product that you use in order to publish your words, power your site, or run your web application. To that end, there is engineering that’s going into these products.
The problem is that many themes aren’t being approached as such. Instead, I believe that they are viewed as a means to and end of making money and the quicker that a person or team can churn, burn, and price a theme, the faster they can make a quick buck.
There are people who are doing the exact opposite and it shows in the quality of their work, their testimonials, and their pricing.
But just as the market allows cheap knock offs to be created and sold alongside high-end products, such is the nature of the theme industry. That doesn’t mean we have to keep going in that direction, though. When enough companies decide to rethink their strategy, re-evaluate their problem space, and solve problems in creative, well-engineered ways, we can begin driving the prices back to where they need to be – competition can do that.
But when I look at the maturity that WordPress has achieved over the last few release cycles (automatic updates, for example), and what’s coming in future updates, it’s a bit embarrassing what we’re creating on top of it and then selling it.
We’re not showcasing the foundations abilities, and – to some degree – we’re disrespecting the core application and the contributions that have gone into continue making this the platform for powering so much of the web.
4. Slow Down and Speak Up
The thing is, it’s not just about prices. It’s about people. For some, blogging is a casual hobby, for others, it’s an incredibly personal form of self-expression, at least on some level.
To that degree, we – as themers – should take extreme pride in the work that we do as we’re representing the way that others are opting to publish their words to the world. Perhaps you don’t see it that way, which is fine, but the truth of the matter is that some people spend an extraordinary amount of time working on their blog – tweaking it, styling it, and then drafting the posts that they’re doing to eventually publish perhaps only for others to critique.
Not only should we take pride, but we should take great care of those people, as well. In previous posts, I’ve talked about the nature of complaining about your customers and the irony of doing so when, without them, you have no business.
I know – some customers can (and sometimes are) a pain to deal with – but just because someone doesn’t know as much as you who created the product doesn’t make them a less intelligent, less capable person. We need to treat them with the utmost patience, respect, and gratitude as dictated for out of all of the hundreds of thousands of both free and premium themes available, they opted to use ours.
So slow down – stop making this a volume game. How many of your favorite companies are known for having an extremely high volume of products from which to choose? For example, look at some of your favorite bands and how many years – or decades – it took just to create, say, five albums.
I know, there are counter examples to this, but do you really want to be grouped in with them?
Instead, focus on pride, care, and quality. Yes, it will take more time and you’ll be turning out more products, but what’s the actual point of what you’re trying to do with your company if not that?
And I feel guilty about this, too: There are side projects that are related to WordPress that I’ve been working on (with others, no less) that’s taking me far longer to complete than some may argue is necessary because it’s a FOSS project. I will not apologize for taking my time building something for free to give back to the community when I have paying customers who are working with a theme for which they’ve paid.
5. Users Do Not Care About Code
Themers – myself included – are weak at marketing. In fact, I’d say that it may be the thing we’re worst at (of course, some of you may argue), but one of the things that I’ve seen touted over and over and over again from nearly every single theme developer and/or theme company is that they have high-quality code.
It’s used as a point of marketing, but get real: This is not a point of marketing. The average user doesn’t know or care what constitutes high-quality code or why it matters. This should be a given. We should not have to advertise this.
On top of that, how are they even able to evaluate that? It’s impressive to me that the average blogger purchases the ability to customize their theme through the use of CSS and learn a little bit of that in order to tweak their blog to their liking.
But who’s to know – or care – how, say, transients are used in order to squeeze slightly better performance out of a theme in certain places?
Quality code is not a point of marketing. This is an assumption that customers have when they buy a theme – they assume that it has a high degree of quality. No one sets out to purchase a theme that’s cobbled together.
But we do customers a disservice by claiming that that’s what’s included whether or not it’s even true, it’s disrespectful to take advantage of people in that way, and we need to stop claiming that.
6. Less Complicated, the Better
Finally, WordPressers love to talk about the whole “decisions, not options” mantra that WordPress espouses, but if you look at the work that we churn out, you wouldn’t be able to deduce that.
Instead, it looks like we care more about giving users such a high number of options that the complexity of the decision-making takes them to a point of frustration such that they don’t even know what looks good any more.
If you’re truly for “decisions, not options,” then start making the decisions for your customers and stop giving them options. At the risk of sounding conceited, one of the points of critique that I’ve received about Mayer is that it’s “too limited.”
But I kinda love hearing that.
When I set out to create that theme, I did so with the intent that the user would be able to install and begin writing as soon as possible with as few proverbial knobs to turn as possible. I made decisions on behalf of the customer in order to help their blogging experience, gave them just enough options to personalize the theme, and then shipped.
If the customer didn’t like it, then that’s okay. They were not the ones for whom I was building the theme.
The truth is: I’ve lost a few sales because of it and it’s because people are used to having every, say, font available to use when they don’t even know a thing about typography (I don’t, but I’m willing to research it for things that I’m working on and I’m willing to seek advice from those who know better about the area than I know). Why should we arm them with the ability for them to do something that may damage the look and feel of their site?
As the Theme Customizer is gaining popularity, we’re already seeing it being abused to do exactly this. But that’s a topic for another post.
Instead, if you’re absolutely serious about making decisions on behalf of your users rather than giving them an array of options and calling each of them features, then do so. Stop giving lip service to the philosophy.
Where to Go From Here
Speaking of a lip service, it’s much easier to give exactly that when, in reality, perhaps we need to have a little less conversation and start actually making the changes that we seem so passionate about pushing through.
But what does this look like? A few ideas that have come to my mind are as follows (and in no particular order):
- We need to do a better job with the documentation of our themes. This includes code documentation, user manuals, and perhaps even videos that walk users through how to use certain features. Though it’s funny to joke that “no one reads a manual anyway,” I’m sure it would go a long way to actually provide users with how to use the product they’ve just purchased.
- Avoid bringing the general public into the debates about the GPL. This is not to say that conversation around licensing isn’t important – because it is – but that the average customer doesn’t need to be brought into these conversation unless s/her voluntarily wants to enter it. Perhaps include a page about it on your site, but don’t go on a long rant about it among all of the marketing and purchasing jargon.
- We need to make the purchase process as easy, painless, and pleasant as possible. On top of that, we need to make sure that account management is easy, too. If there’s an update for a theme, it should be easy to login and grab it – there should be as few hoops to jump through as it relates to getting the latest and greatest updates to the software they’ve purchased.
- We need to make sure that we’re staying in touch with our users via newsletters and blog posts in order to make sure that they know the company behind the product is still alive and working on the theme.
- Let users demo the theme prior to purchasing it – this will let them know what they are in for and it will give them a heads up as to what they can expect before purchasing a product. It will allow them the ability to test drive the theme, get a feel for it, ask any questions that they need to do so upfront and ultimately minimize buyer’s remorse.
Yes – there’s more than can be done, but these are some of the larger items that I think are easily actionable (well, okay, some more than others), but that I’m planning to begin implementing as soon as possible.
If we want WordPress to continue to be taken seriously, and we want our themes to help provide a sustainable business, we need to change the current model; otherwise, we’re going to continue racing to the bottom and then we’re going to be left with nothing more to complain about than what we did to ourselves and the economy we created.
More than a year ago when I launched my theme shop (not gonna drop links), I decided to do the unthinkable – charge $199 per theme, with 1 year of updates/support.
I’m pretty happy with that decision :)
Sure, drawing a conclusion from a single person can be considered a hasty generalization, but when we’ve got Automatticians (both past and present), other people who are more familiar with the business side of things, and our own levels of intuition telling us something that’s wrong, then we need to change what we’re doing.
Right now, we’ve nowhere to go but up, and I really, really want to be someone who contributes that. The alternative is simply no longer an option.