The WordPress eco-system has changed so much in the past few years that keeping up with all of it has become a challenge! It’s been so encouraging not only to see WordPress themes and plug-ins increase in quality and use, but to see the overall appeal and acceptance in the worldwide marketplace grow as well.
For example, you know that an application is gaining a lot of steam when some of the largest organizations in the world (including many Fortune 50 businesses) are starting to use it for both their internal and external properties.
Naturally, as the quality of products surrounding WordPress grows in stature, so will the organizations and individuals that create and profit from them. With this increased demand comes a much greater focus on how to create a sustainable business involving WordPress. One area in particular is customer service.
A significant reason for this increase of focus on customer support in many theme shops is the GPL. More and more WordPress theme shop owners are honoring the spirit and letter of the open-source license and are finding that their biggest value proposition is based not solely on the product, but rather on the services surrounding the sale—customer support being one of them.
This makes sense, because anyone could take any old theme and profit from it once; but to do it again (and again) requires something a bit more than shipping capability. A trustworthy brand backed by a dedicated team of customer service and support is usually much more attractive to the end user than a copy of a premium theme obtained from a random torrent website. It’s also much safer, too.
But is it viable? Is it profitable? Here’s the challenge in a nutshell:
Can a model that focuses on customer support and service produce the returns necessary to keep the business profitable (if not afloat)?
Why would one care to answer such a question? First, the results could help feed the momentum necessary for current and future entrepreneurs who are interested in building a successful business around WordPress.
Secondly, I know the challenges of growing a WordPress theme shop, and I wanted to make sure that having a robust service and support system for the business was both wise and financially sound. In other words, if I was going to “make it” in this business, I wanted to make sure that it would be a smart move to model my efforts after the major players that seem to be doing it right.
What did I find? The answer appears to be a resounding “Yes,” and this article shares some of the research I came up with on the strategies, methods and implementations of top theme shops, and it looks briefly at the premium plug-in marketplace.
Let’s start by looking at some of the top WordPress theme shops to see whether service and support are not only part of their business model but integral to their brands.
A Look At The Top WordPress Businesses And Their Service and Support Models
At one point, identifying the top players in the WordPress theme marketplace was fairly easy, even for casual customers. This is no longer the case; drawing them out requires a bit of historical knowledge.
Although this list might come under heavy fire from nearly every angle, the goal is not to be comprehensive, but rather to be historically fair, providing as accurate a depiction as possible of the current WordPress theme marketplace with regards to service and support.
Generally speaking, the four theme shops below are well respected in the industry and have long been recognized as leaders in the space.
WooThemes is arguably the best known WordPress theme shop out there, and it even has even adapted its model to other platforms, such as ExpressionEngine, Drupal and the e-commerce platform Magento. However, it recently returned to its roots to concentrate on WordPress exclusively.
At the time of writing, WooThemes had nearly 90 WordPress-related themes, and more in the pipeline. But what of its service model?
It has some key areas of support:
- Support forum,
The area with the most client interaction is the support forum, which is closed to the general public but viewable by paying customers. The forum is a lightly customized version of the popular bbPress forum software, also made by the creators of WordPress (Automattic):
WooThemes’ support is widely regarded as superb. Full-time staff manage the boards daily, and some core developers who build the products even engage with customers.
Needless to say, customer support is part of the WooTheme way. Many newer theme shops have copied its approach to support.
But how well has it fared with this model so far? Over $2 million in sales a year, according to Adii Pienaar, one of the founders of WooThemes. Could its support system be said to be the biggest contributing factor? Perhaps. But service and support were obviously in Adii’s blood to begin with; for example, he makes a point of answering every single email in his inbox. Now that’s customer support.
I spend a lot of time on email, and I do respond to every single email that I get. … I just commit the time. First thing in the morning and last thing before I go home for the day is spent doing emails, spent connecting with people.
– Adii Pienaar
It shows. His business, beyond the great themes, is support and service. It is one of the hallmarks of his business and brand, and I applaud him for it.
2. Thesis Theme
Thesis Theme is also one of the best-known players in the space, for the right reasons and (at times) the wrong ones. Witness, for example, the very public dispute over GPL licensing between Chris Pearson (the founder of Thesis) and Matt Mullenweg (the founder of WordPress).
Whatever your opinion, Thesis deserves its due as one of the most consistently prominent premium theme shops out there.
So, how does its service and support compare? “Mysterious” is one way to put it. At first pass, finding any explicit mention of support is hard. Searching for the keyword “forums” returns only four results, two of which are testimonials and two of which explain how Thesis, like WooThemes, is members only:
And if you need a helping hand along the way, you’ll be able to cash in on the most valuable part of your Thesis purchase: our expert support staff and members-only forums!
As with WooThemes, the forum isn’t publicly accessible from the home page. You have to log in to see it:
What’s interesting as you dig into this “service” model is that it’s unclear what exactly is supported by actual staff members (a “Shelley” is mentioned on the home page) and what is provided by regular paid users:
As you can see, the top three posters are miles ahead of any other users, and there is no “Shelley” to be seen (although there is a user named Shelley who has four posts to date). It’s quite apparent that this is really a community-led support system, with little to no guidance or support staff to be seen. Quality assurance of solutions is hit and miss, and moderation is hard to find. Lastly, finding Chris Pearson in the forum is hard as well, and he’s the one behind it all.
Does this mean that support and service are lacking? Not necessarily, because a dedicated support team
community (and power users in particular) seem to be picking up the slack , and the democratic and open nature of the system seems to be working.
Note that, unlike WooThemes, there is no obvious user guide or FAQ. You have to either log into the system (whereupon you would see it in the header) or jump over to the blog to find it in a drop-down menu:
What does this mean for end users or potential customers? Perhaps that the core product is the focus of this business, and not customer support.
Has it hurt the bottom line? From Chris’ mouth, not really. He’s been known to share his numbers, openly citing over $400,000 in affiliate sales, for at least a total gross of $1.2 million. And he added that it is “obvious” he has made more than that.
One could say that despite the lack of support as a core part of Thesis’ model (compared to WooThemes), it has still been successful. But remember that Thesis was in many ways the first to market, and the forum system was a part of this move. Chris provided a support system, and the community rallied around it, taking up the banner, thus creating an internal culture of usefulness.
Update: Chris Pearson has clarified a couple of issues in the comments to this article and on Twitter: “We have two full-time and two part-time support people, not to mention an appointed moderator from within the community (with more to come). In fact, I would be willing to bet that we spend more on support than any other premium theme provider.
Our support forums are intended to be an exclusive benefit to our members, and that’s why they are not visible to site visitors who are not logged in. New customers receive a welcome email detailing where they can find our support forums, so we are very clear about the assistance that we provide (and where to get it). [...] Like the forums, the User’s Guide is linked from the navigation bar for logged-in users. We also link to it in our welcome email to new customers.”
StudioPress has been around for a while, although the name wasn’t always the same. Brian Gardner, the founder of the business, first called his theme line “Revolution.” It was eventually rebranded in February 2009.
Today it is known as one of the top theme shops out there, providing over 30 WordPress themes and a number of WordPress plug-ins to boot. But that’s certainly not all: StudioPress has partnered with some of the bigger names in the industry and is a part of CopyBlogger Media, which offers much more than WordPress themes.
But has all of this extra business weakened its support and service model? Hardly. Like Thesis, StudioPress uses a lightly customized installation of vBulletin for its support systems. It offers an in-depth developer-friendly overview (with tutorials, how-to’s and more). And it has a general FAQ.
Saying that service and support is integral to its business would not be overstating it in the least.
If you dig in further, you will see that it has more than 25 legitimate moderators and super-users who help control, manage and support the community at large:
Needless to say, support and service is a significant part of its online model and figures largely in its business and brand. This comes as no surprise; Brian had the idea for the forum right out of the gate. After racking up a whopping $10,000 worth of sales in the first month, he knew that his growing business needed some sort of forum software:
And it got so big so quick, I realized this is more than just a few bucks. I need to build something around this. That’s when I started looking into forum software, because I knew that I’d have to provide support. So I set up this support forum. I have no business background, or a degree in business, this was all fly-by-the-seat-of-my-shorts at that point, and so I just did what felt right.
And it has proven to be right. With the forum software in place and a solid product offering, StudioPress continues to grow.
Where does it stand now? In the same interview, Brian mentions that it has at least 35,000 paying customers. The most conservative estimate would put the company’s revenue at an excess of $2 million. But the real figure is probably much further north.
StudioPress is headed in the right direction, and it will almost certainly continue to grow, because its model is not only effective but competitive and sharp.
There’s no escaping this behemoth. Most developers and designers are already aware of ThemeForest’s growing number of WordPress themes at cut-rate prices. It offers products not only for WordPress but for Magento, Joomla, ExpressionEngine and Drupal, as well as a slew of options for e-commerce-related apps.
As of the time of writing, this marketplace had 923 WordPress themes, and growing daily. Compared to other theme shops, this number is simply staggering. It makes sense, though, when you see the difference in its model and strategy: premium themes from many contributors instead of a single source.
How does this affect support and service for the themes themselves? In a word, it’s “different.” Envato, the parent company of ThemeForest, has a service agreement, but it’s limited and pretty much passes on the responsibility to customers and their relationship with vendors. There is a support forum, but it’s general in nature and definitely not a place to find support for a particular theme:
What can you expect from the vendors? Mixed results at best. For starters, see what some of the top sellers offer:
The number-one selling WordPress theme has sold over 5,000 copies. At $35 a pop, that’s a total gross of $175,000. ThemeForest has a sliding scale for payment, and at this tier, the author would pocket 70% of the earnings, for a net take of $122,000. Not bad, right? That’s assuming the theme sold exclusively through ThemeForest.
But the question remains, does this top seller provide support? A quick look at the theme reveals that it does, with a link to a forum separate from ThemeForest:
As you can see, it uses its own forum software, running on its own server:
But support is not required of all theme authors. A quick scan of the lower-selling themes reveals that the vast majority do not self-host any support systems outside of ThemeForest. And what support there is mostly happens in the comment layer of the theme itself:
What does this mean for service and support for WordPress themes on ThemeForest? It means Caveat emptor (“buyer beware”)!
Responsibility ultimately rests with the buyer, who should check whether the author has a history of providing robust support or whether there is off-site support that addresses their needs.
Only the best-selling themes seem to provide the level of support offered by other premium theme shops (such as WooThemes, Genesis and Thesis). Perhaps this makes good business sense, because the time, energy and capital required to create a self-hosted off-site system would be warranted if sales are strong to begin with.
Does this happen all the time? Not necessarily, and this puts Envato and its ThemeForest system in a different field with regard to service and support. How has this affected business for Envato and its respective contributors? Quite positively, in fact, especially for the strong sellers. The others have varied results, and a quick Google search shows that there’s much debate on whether being a seller on Envato is worthwhile in the long run, when you could just as easily set up shop and sell to customers directly.
But that’s a discussion for another blog post.
Typical Support Models
From looking at these four services (and a vast sampling of many other commercial WordPress theme shops), one could conclude the following:
- Premium theme shops typically have a support system;
- FAQs are common;
- Documentation is generally offered;
- Support forums are also prevalent.
Does this mean that a theme shop without these elements is guaranteed to fail? Certainly not, because many commercial theme shops do not offer the full range of support seen with the four above.
But you would be wise to heed their success and either spin your own contextual business model or simply adopt the one that works. “Don’t fix what ain’t broke,” right?
To say that these four WordPress theme shops are representative of the eco-system of commercial WordPress themes would be a stretch. The support models are as diverse as the themes themselves. Generally speaking, though, the ones seen above are found throughout the WordPress business culture.
Finally, note the lack of the support element that’s a fixture of brick-and-mortar stores: phone support. This makes sense because these are Web-based businesses, and most engagement is done online. Still, there may be room for innovation for theme shops that want to distinguish themselves (and make a market play) by offering something different like this.
What About Premium WordPress Plug-In Shops?
As a good researcher and business strategist, you should consider alternative business models that are similar in scope and product. The growing eco-system of premium WordPress plug-in shops is one such area. They may not have the depth or breadth of market coverage, but they are without question growing rapidly. Many believe that they’ll become a serious area of WordPress business soon enough.
Here are some of the better-known plug-in shops for your consideration.
1. Gravity Forms
Gravity Forms offers an advanced form builder that does some fairly incredible stuff. With deep integration with enterprise-grade Web services like FreshBooks, MailChimp, PayPal, Campaign Monitor and more, one could use it as more than a simple contact form.
Getting started will cost you at least $39, and the price goes up to $199. This plug-in at the high end costs more than nearly every WordPress theme in existence (even the most expensive ones). So, what do you get at this level? For starters, you get access to a support forum:
This, as well as a general FAQ and documentation, is available to all license holders. If you have the highest support license (“Developer”), then you get access to what’s called “Priority support,” which gives you the following:
- Automatic upgrades,
- Online support,
- Priority support,
These value-adds could hold appeal, especially for teams or individuals that have shelled out nearly $200 for the product. Generally, Gravity Forms has support mechanisms that are similar to many of the premium WordPress theme shops out there.
Another commercial plug-in is GetShopped, which is a free download to start, but then you can purchase some advanced features and add-ons, ranging from $10 to $195. It’s one of the best-known e-commerce plug-in solutions out there, and some of the customizations that people have created with it are truly world class.
The following support mechanisms are in place for customers:
- Support forums,
- Premium support via a token system.
The support is similar to that of Gravity Forms as well as many other WordPress theme shops.
3. Code Canyon, via Envato and WPPlugins
Code Canyon’s premium WordPress plug-in directory has the exact same support system as ThemeForest. In other words, the customer could be purchasing a plug-in that comes with very little support or that comes with a robust system provided directly by the author.
This particular website is growing fast, with more and more authors using this platform to sell their creations, so the buyer should research carefully before making a purchase.
An alternative to Code Canyon is WPPlugins, which has a similar directory:
The website itself does not guarantee support and instead lays responsibility directly on the authors. Instructions for installation are sometimes provided, but some cover little more than the simple process of installing the plug-in. In other words, support runs the gamut from great to non-existent.
VaultPress is a project developed by WordPress and Automattic directly, and I think it’s one of the best WordPress plug-ins out there, especially among back-up systems for WordPress (there are a number of free alternatives). The system is similar to the enterprise-grade back-up solution that runs the gigantic WordPress.com network of blogs, and it can be used by both personal bloggers and Fortune 500 companies.
VaultPress offers “Premium support” for paying customers (currently $15 to $40), as well as a “Concierge Service” to assist new customers with new installations. There is also a robust support section with FAQs, video tutorials and screencasts, plus general information for custom configurations of the plug-in. Above all else is the peace of mind you’ve purchased, knowing that 20 million+ blogs are using it with success.
5. OIO Publisher
OIO Publisher is a popular advertising management system that you can install quickly on a self-hosted WordPress blog and use off the shelf to sell advertising to partner companies and interested individuals.
Paying customers ($47) get access to forums, FAQs and documentation that cover installation and usage. The content is typical fare and might very well suit your needs. All in all, nothing is too different about this approach to support.
Scribe is one of the newer players out there and is quickly gaining attention through its high-profile marketers and partners. It is described as an advanced SEO optimization plug-in that can optimize your blog posts for search engines.
You get access to its support system (“myScribe System”), which has forums, video tutorials and a troubleshooting ticketing system, as well as email support. Occasional educational resources are sent out via a newsletter as well.
The cost? Up to $97 per month. This service could end up costing you over $1,000 per year if you opt for the biggest subscription. Hopefully, the additional traffic you generate will more than make up for it.
The Bottom Line
All in all, WordPress theme and plug-in providers are working not only to attract new customers but to retain them. And not only in small quantities either. Some major theme shops attract tens of thousands of happy customers, who then refer new business every day.
For some, service and support are not only a part of business, but make up their foundational philosophy. These companies do not just tack on service and support at the end of the purchase, but rather integrate it as a core feature of the product. It’s a great model and extremely profitable, even for small shops.
If you’re serious about entering the WordPress theme market and being a serious contender, then you’ll want to seriously consider offering ongoing service and support for a kick-butt Web product. (Just make sure the product truly kicks butt.)
Finally, you may be interested in how I used this research to launch my WordPress theme, Standard Theme, and how this has affected my business’ bottom line. Here are some quick insights:
- Offering support gave our marketing that extra oomph and factored into the service being listed by Mashable as one of the top premium themes out there.
- The community and support system that we use, Zendesk, is a paid service, but we saw it as an investment in our community and product. It has since provided an exceptional ROI, and the community is now giving back resources, tutorials and help to other members alongside our dedicated staff. We started with vBulletin, but we weren’t satisfied with how it functioned. It was also heavy on our servers.
- Our support system is, in fact, one of our strongest value propositions, and customers talk this up on Facebook and Twitter regularly.
The bottom line is that, although we pay four figures a year for Zendesk, we’ve made that investment back in spades in terms of community engagement and product sales. The point is this: service and support should be seriously considered by WordPress theme shops not only for business growth but to remain competitive.
To round out your own research, have a look at some of these resources and links, and gather as much info as you can on service and support for WordPress businesses:
- WordPress’ official commercial themes directory, to compare with other theme shops.
- Many free WordPress themes are offered by Smashing Magazine for your comparison and contrast.
- “Crafting An Irresistible Price by Focusing on Your Users”
- A look back at 2008, when premium themes were on the rise.
- For a relevant and timely read, try Tony Hsieh’s book, Delivering Happiness. It is a serious resource about how one successful business made customer support its mantra and method. It obviously worked, because it sold the business for more than $1 billion! You can apply Hsieh’s lessons and experience directly to your WordPress business.
What’s Your Take?
How have you seen the WordPress premium marketplace change? Is it a good or bad thing? We’d love to hear your thoughts, and if you have any additional resources, feel free to list them for everyone’s benefit!