What should a WordPress theme cost? [Opinion]

hotel pricing gives us a way to think about thingsYes, I just tagged the title as “opinion” to make sure you were reminded that pretty much every post on this site is actually an opinion, not a fact. 

I wrote a post the other day that looked at what would happen if WordPress themes got more expensive. It wasn't answering the question of whether prices should go up. It was just looking at what would happen if they did.

Today I thought I would share with you my thoughts on what I think a WordPress theme should cost.

Let's look at hotels for a second…

I can't help but use non-technical examples when I explain things. Developers reading this will feel like, “come on, get to it.”

But a lot of things are more easily explained when we're thinking of shared experiences, and pricing digital products is most definitely not a shared experience.

I normally stay in five different kinds of hotels.

When I vacation with my family, to a resort, it's normally part of Hilton Grand Vacations.

When I travel with just my wife, on a nice trip, it's normally a Ritz Carlton.

When I take my kids with us, but it's not a big vacation, we stay at Embassy Suites or DoubleTree.

When I travel alone, on the weekends for conferences, I stay at the Westin.

When I travel alone, on weekdays for work, I often stay at a Hampton Inn.

Each hotel offers me something that makes sense for the kind of trip – but at different prices. My nightly cost can range from $75 to $750.

That's a huge swing! And the fact that it exists tells us something very specific about a night's stay – that it exists in both the “necessity” and “luxury good” categories.

It also tells us that several segments exist for a night's stay – from “business traveller” to “family vacationer” and more.

And in each segment, we've seen competitors spring up as substitutes – like Homewood Suites, Embassy Suites, SpringHill Suites – which push each of them to add more features and bring prices down.

So to sum up the experience we've likely all had in the hotel space:

  1. Different segments exist.
  2. Substitutes exist in every segment.
  3. Pricing changes by segment and substitutes apply pricing pressure.

As the WordPress theme space matures…

You shouldn't be surprised, in any market that survives long enough to mature, if we see these same dynamics play out. The result is that WordPress theme cost will also see big variances.

Two forces will fight against each other, in a positive way.

  • Segmentation will create new tiers of higher-priced themes.
  • In-segment competition (substitution products) will push prices in that segment lower.

And with all those changes, we'll be left with the main question. The point of this post.

What should a WordPress theme cost?

Blogger Themes: Free – $40

Should a person who wants to blog have to spend a lot of money to have a theme that doesn't look like crap? I don't think so – if they're willing to deal with constraints with support.

It's equivalent of camping, youth hostels, or an inexpensive motel. Of course, it comes with constraints. And that's not bad. Many people who blog just need a place to type. Their site doesn't have to “fully express all of who I am.”

WordPress.com offers people that plus free hosting. And for a small fee, users can get premium themes, like my daughter's use of Mayer from Tom McFarlin.

But the point isn't just what WordPress.com is doing. It's about the value exchange. People just looking to post some photos and text may not want to pay a lot and price may be their only consideration.

There's nothing wrong with free or a small fee, if users understand, in advance, what they're getting and what they're not getting.

Sometimes these constraints include limits on:

  • How to get help (only public forums, only text docs)
  • How to customize the look (change header, change accent color)
  • How to add functionality (can't, list of available plugins, etc)

My point is simply that a discussion on higher prices shouldn't mean higher prices for everyone arbitrarily. That's not what I'm advocating.

The fact that WordPress is free, and that some folks give back in the form of themes that are free, is what makes this community awesome.

But free (or low cost) doesn't have to be the only dynamic at play.

And there are some really good reasons for higher-priced segments.

Portfolio Themes: $50 – 150

When I think about graphic designers, logo designers, photographers and other creatives that need a place to showcase their work, I immediately sense the difference between them and the folks writing a fun blog.

I'm sure there are bloggers who are killing it on their blog, and they likely won't go for a free or stock $35 theme. Just like there are some design agencies that won't use a stock portfolio theme. But I'm not talking about those situations. I'm looking at the designer, artist, writer or photographer that is just getting started, and over the last year or two has enough to put into a portfolio, but not enough cash for a custom design.

In that case, their needs are predictable.

  • The theme should look great.
  • The theme should highlight their work, not itself.
  • The theme should fit their own brand personality.

The folks that design these themes have the hard work of making it stand out, and yet making it applicable to enough people to sell it more than once. They also are taking into account more than just blog posts. They're figuring out the best way to make creative work “pop.”

In my opinion, these range from the Hampton Inn to Westin. And that's a decent range. But it's because my business travel needs differ – between the day in / day out weekday travel for work in remote cities, to the nicer weekends where I need great sleep in big cities.

Mind you, I'm referencing business hotels for a reason. These themes are, in many ways, the first professional business-tier segment.

Let me remind you, that this is just my opinion. But I know a lot of people – non-professionals – that pay more in flash cards for their expensive DSLR than that on a website. And these people are doing photography for a hobby.

If you're in the business of selling your photos, and you need to stand out, but aren't ready yet to drop $5,000 on a custom site, spending $150 seems like a no-brainer for a really great theme that you can customize to shape into something that helps you stand out.

Speaker / Author / Conference Themes: $150-300

Wait! What? Am I telling you that a theme in this niche should cost someone $300 when they can go to ThemeForest and get it for $60.

Yes. Yes I am.

Because we've left the realm of “just show of my writing” and “show off my art” and now we've stepped into themes that need to take into account the serious and challenging “call to action.”

Mind you, just because a bozo creates a theme in any of these segments doesn't make it one that I recommend at this price tier. I'm not giving everyone carte blanche to create crappy conference themes.

I'm saying that if you know how to create a theme for WordPress that includes some additional page templates for these kinds of sites, and if you know how to solve the CTA challenge associated with these kinds of sites, then the price point should be higher.

When we take our kids with us on trips, we need more than when we travel alone. We need a “suites” hotel because it gives them their own space. And we pay for it. But it's cheaper than two rooms, and better than jamming us all into the same single room. That's why I don't mind paying the Embassy Suites rates.

Again, benchmark this against people who pay $3,000 for one-time use conference custom sites, or $5-10,000 for larger speaker or author designs that include some tight integration with plugins.

This is where we should start seeing themes that include styling for the plugins you are expected to use. Because these themes have functionality that you'll need/want.

A great example of this is Marketify. Not a speaker/author/conference theme. But similar in how I'm describing this dynamic.

They have coded their theme to take into account the various plugins from EDD that you might have in place. If you don't have an extension, there's no hassle. But when you do, it gets styled perfectly!

To be clear, a lot of theme types fall in this segment – not just speakers / authors/ conferences. They all have the need for a few plugins to provide functionality and they need the right styling included. They have a need for conversion and the design that supports it.

Application Themes: $300-500

The number of people that use WordPress as a full-blown application is tiny compared to the group that uses it for blogging. We're at the stage where the debate is “do we build this on our own” or “can we get WordPress to do most of it?”

In that conversation, the notion of cost is

  • Do it ourselves – thousands and thousands of dollars
  • WordPress / Themes / Plugin – under a thousand

The answer should be obvious, if the theme and plugin exist for the niche.

Notice that each time I talk about a price (or price range), I'm anchoring the alternatives. And the alternatives cost a lot more.

Notice when I look at these segments, I'm talking about the business context (not the cost to develop). And the context suggests they can, should, and will pay more.

But while I have you this far into this post, let me reinforce something I already said.

Just because you create a theme for this category doesn't mean you get these prices. Themes in this segment should command this price – but mostly because the kind of theme designer / developer that plays here already knows how to solve the serious problems that these business folks / site owners have.

If you don't know what problems you're solving, in a segment, you have no business working in that segment. (Go ahead, quote me!)

I already referenced Marketify, but they're in this exact space. Between their theme and some plugins from EDD, you can create an entire marketplace.

But other problems exist in the world, and need solutions too – like Job Boards. The trick is the tight coupling between themes and plugins. But when you buy the theme, you want to know that it will style the plugin or in the end, it all looks really generic.

In essence, when you get to this stage, you care about the details. Because you would if you were building it yourself. So think of this as the stay at  the Ritz. Not everyone does it. But those who do come to appreciate certain amenities and service.

Wait – there's one more segment – $500+

When I take my family to Cabo San Lucas, we stay at the Fiesta Americana. We first went because of our Hilton Grand Vacations Club membership on our honeymoon – ten years ago. And for ten years we've gone back – because it's an incredible place.

They recently introduced an all-inclusive package. You can eat from 12 different restaurants. Drink all you want. And they even have a cigar lounge.

I don't pay for my hotel room when I go there. I use my points, pay my yearly fees and never think about things again.

And that, I think, is the final segment that we're seeing materialize.

Where people don't pay for themes at all. They pay for the whole experience.

I've told you about RainMaker and about Evermore. Both are introducing us to the all-inclusive package. And in the end, this is a different tier and outside the others, but just as important.

Oh, and let me be clear, we haven't even stepped into the whole “custom design theme service” space – where things cost much more!

Let me guess, you don't agree?

I know there's no chance I could have written 2000 words and you've not found something to disagree with. I get that. Here's the thing. If you disagree politely and want to write a paragraph that is both informative and helpful, I'll publish your comment. If you write a book, I'm deleting it. If you are nasty, deleting it. And if you want to start your own blog to write an entire response, you can freely do so at WordPress.com and the link back is free.

I say all that because this is meant to help my audience think about things. It's not to have a public debate. I'm not engaging in that. Because, like I started this post with – these are my opinions. If you have strong ones I seriously and politely suggest you spin up a site under your name to write about them.

If you agree…and will be stepping into the space…

If you agree, and will soon be stepping into this space, I'd love to hear about you and see what you're up to. I'd love to help out in ways that I can. So leave me a comment, and tell me a bit about what you're up to.

I can't wait to see more segments materialize, with a stronger business discussion that accompanies them, so that we can see this market mature.