Premium WordPress Themes and Other Concerns

Matt Mullenweg announced two weeks ago that WordPress would go forward with a Themes Marketplace where designers could sell their work and split the profits 50/50 with Automattic. But earlier this year, some designers had already begun selling “premium themes” themselves — WP templates with bonus features, plugins and otherwise above-average designs. Solostream was among the first to offer this kind of paid-theme product.

A month after Mimbo first launched in August, I noticed a few other developers starting to put out similar news and magazine themes. One that made a big splash was Brian Gardner’s Revolution News which sells for anywhere between $99.95 to $249.95. It’s notable that Brian charged for it, but also because it’s top quality work that stands above what you find in the usual theme galleries.

More folks are beginning to test the waters. Last week I got an email from an outspoken South African designer named Adii who mentioned Mimbo had been a big influence on his latest concept called Premium News. He also asked that I give it some feedback. To be fair, any kind of advertising on this site is forbidden on principle, but Adii was kind enough to provide a copy of the theme (also valued at $99.95 – $249.95).

premium

Premium News

Advantages:
It’s obvious Adii has put a lot of thought into keeping the homepage compact and well-organized. He’s made use of javascript libraries like jQuery to handle some of the tabbing and accordian behaviors. This might be pure novelty on some sites, but here I think it’s actually useful in keeping “major” information available while obscuring “minor” information when it’s appropriate. Aside from the javascript, the homepage also succeeds because it remains fairly clean despite the amount of content.

As far as interior pages go, I like that the archives allow browsing by category, date and tag-cloud. One thing I’d like to see on the single-post pages, and something I’ll add later to Mimbo, is a more context-specific sidebar. Example: if you’re reading an article in the “Main Category 1″ section, the sidebar also displays modules like “More articles from this category” and other content. CNN does a good job of this — if you visit the “Health” section you get an expanded overview of that section which resembles its own mini-homepage.

I think the real advantages to Premium News are the dashboard options. Here you can edit preferences for color scheme, video and featured content, all without having to open any templates. I imagine this is a big plus for site owners who are not developers themselves.

Drawbacks:
I’d like to see this theme validate properly and find a solution to the various inline CSS styles and inline javascript. I’d comment more on some of the bloating in the CSS/HTML, but it looks like another company handled the slicing. Keeping in mind, these details are invisible to the end-user, but remain a best-practices issue for any professional site.

Appearance-wise, I’d also like to see some more creativity in terms of color, polish and typography, especially for a paid theme. News sites are inherently pretty sober, so I understand keeping it simple, but there are other news and portal-style layouts that convey warmth and personality:

All things considered, I think Premium News will do well, especially since Adii provides support and future upgrades. As a fan of bastardizing WordPress myself, I think he’s gone a long way to pushing it into CMS territory.

The right design for the right client

One curiosity about premium news and magazine themes: who is the ideal client?

For individual bloggers, a newsy layout won’t often be appropriate. But for reputable news or media sources who are serious about their identity, selecting a $250 pre-fab design is also unlikely. The features they request often greatly surpass what WordPress is capable of. The last few media sites I’ve worked on have ranged from $10,000 – $40,000 and required extended information-design and wireframe phases which took weeks. Obviously there are clients with significantly smaller budgets, but if so, is a news-portal layout with video the appropriate thing for them, especially if they know their site will be identical to hundreds of others?

I do understand some of this is a difference in perspective — if I went freelance tomorrow, I can’t promise the quantity-selling of themes isn’t something I’d consider, but I admit to being conflicted by the idea. Instead of going into it more here, I’ll save it for another post…

  • http://www.nathanrice.net/ Nathan Rice

    Nice review, Darren.

    Mimbo, TMA, etc. were all a pretty good indicator of the market shift … people want blogs to look like news sites … take problogger.net for example. People look at their heroes and want to imitate them. And now there are themes that allow for it, and people are signing up like crazy.

    Adii’s theme is the more advanced news theme available at the moment, for sure. I don’t love all the javascript, but to each his own, really.

    The theme options are great … I recently started including them in my free themes just before Premium news came out, and I’ll be including them in the premium theme I’m releasing as well. I think it’s entirely necessary, given the average blogger doesn’t really want to mess with the code. Just ask Brian, Adii, SP how many requests they get to customize their themes. People want easy … and easy means more work for the designer in the form of theme options. They are becoming the standard now.

    BTW, I was brainstorming some ideas for future themes, and the contextual sidebar thing was something I thought about as well, although your idea was a bit different than mine. I like that though, especially the part about adding “more from this category” in the category archives.

    Good stuff!
    Nathan

  • http://www.adii.co.za Adii

    @ Darren – glad I got you to do the review of the theme, since your input and views are great! :) Thanks so much for taking the time to write about Premium News – it’s constructive criticism like this that will further improve my theme offerings.

    And as for the design aspect of the site – it’s definitely not my best design work ever, but the idea was to keep it clean and customizable. Brian G’s Revolution isn’t close to being the most attractive design ever, yet he is most certainly the market leader. I really hope to see quite a few great mods of the theme by the people that have bought it thus far.

    @ Nathan – why don’t you like the Javascript? It definitely adds functionality to the theme that you can’t get otherwise – and some of the functions are quite integral to a heavy content site.

  • http://www.nathanrice.net/ Nathan Rice

    @Adii,
    It’s a personal preference … that’s it. I like lightweight homepages, and the homepage for premium news is almost 100% javascript handled. You’re right though, it does add features and functionality that would otherwise be lost.

    But, for instance, both the menus (lavalamp and suckerfish) are handled using javascript, which doesn’t add any functionality … it just makes it “look cool”. To me, that just makes the homepage more bloated than necessary. Lavalamp is cool, but you don’t see many mainstream media sites using it, and suckerfish is GREAT, but the animation is unnecessary. Suckerfish dropdowns can be handled using pure css for most browsers, and a small JS file for IE.

    I’m not bashing you … anything but. Talks in my circles have been very positive about PNT. I’m just ultra picky when it comes to the correct usage of JS … that’s it. :-)

  • http://www.hoodgrownonline.com Hoodgrown_Magazine

    Very interesting post. Ada.. I like your theme a lot while I do understands Nathan’s points… my thing is whatever works. I haven’t used wordpress for any of my freelance clients but after learning about Mimbo and some of these other premium templates…

    I think my applicable project will definitely be using WordPress.

    thanks to both for great themes…

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  • http://www.cycling-challenge.com Will

    “Premium WordPress Themes and Other Concerns”

    You didn’t sound concerned though :)

    For me premium themes are fine. The premium themes listed are generally very high quality. And – importantly – no doubt it pushes free themes to be better.

    You should be congratulated though on an innovative, high quality free theme.

  • http://samdevol.cohttp://samdevol.com/wordpress-troubleshooting-i-have-to-validate-oh-my/ Sam

    Validation is a big concern of mine, I’ve found that validation errors are often symptoms of other, deeper problems that often might not show up at first but become cascading issues at some time.

    Then the issue of support comes up… My guess is that might be the pearl that theme shoppers will need to discover before purchase…

    It will be interesting to see how this works out.

  • http://www.ponohouse.com Bill Babcock

    I’m probably a typical potential customer for a paid theme like this, and I suspect there are others. I’ve been blogging for a while and now I’m considering building an online magazine–wordpress is my platform of choice for this, and perhaps the only feasible choice for someone just getting their feet wet in serious online publishing. Most of the magazine or four column themes I’ve looked at are not quite right, and I’m not interested in doing a redesign shortly after I start. So a reasonably priced template makes sense. Semi-custom makes more sense to me than pure custom since I assume I’d face a continual round of redevelopment every time a new version of wordpress came out (assuming I chose to stay current). I think many bloggers who deliver content that is not simply of chronological interest will want blog-like simplicity with more flexible content access. I’m willing to pay a few hundred bucks to get it right initially. A few thousand–maybe not.

  • http://silomjournal.com ket

    I do not agree bloggers should pay $100 for these themes.
    With Mombo2 integrated with some features in Justin’s Visionary, (http://justintadlock.com/archives/2007/11/04/visionary-wordpress-theme), they can have the themes even better than them both. Above all, they are free.

    However, wordpress load slow if they build very huge site.

  • http://silomjournal.com ket

    Just discovered,

    and what about this theme:

    http://demoserver.wpsorted.com/saytantah/

  • http://www.newaffiliatediscoveries.com Suzanne of New Affiliate Discoveries

    I agree that bloggers want great looking themes and the premium news theme movement makes it accessible. But at the same time, the average blogger does not have his or her content organized well enough to truly take advantage of the options that the news themes present.

    Without well thought out headline articles, categories and other features (video? tutorials? forums?) the average blogger will have a below average site with a pretty dressing in the front window.

  • keith watkins

    adi i think right now your on the cutting edge
    either you ride the crest of the wave or get pummeled by it
    good stuff!!!!
    i hope that your work continues in the same direction

  • http://www.hoodgrownonline.com Hoodgrown_Magazine

    “I do not agree bloggers should pay $100 for these themes.
    With Mombo2 integrated with some features in Justin’s Visionary, (http://justintadlock.com/archives/2007/11/04/visionary-wordpress-theme), they can have the themes even better than them both. Above all, they are free.”

    That’s all well and good but who’s to say that a person’s time isn’t worth money? Some people will spend their time working on great themes (like Mimbo) and offer them for FREE and some will want to make a business out of their creativity.

    If you find something free you like use it.. but don’t knock someone for wanting to capitalize off of their hard work.

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  • http://fak3r.com fak3r

    I just started using Mimbo on my site, fak3r.com, and the reason I like the magazine layout is that it allows me to promote some of my better articles from years ago; things that would otherwise never be seen again unless someone went crazy and searched my site for hours. Now I have a ‘Lead story’ to highlight something new, features down the left gutter showcasing some of my commentary, and then the four main categories in the center channel. Also, those categories are individual categories in themselves, so I can choose which story I want to represent that category, instead of having to use the latest. I dig the php too, very easy to edit, sculpt – and I’m enjoying making my www presence a bit more formal, esp since after ~5 years of blogging, I just started with the ads.

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  • http://www.prowordpress.org Wordpress Plugins

    Good job, Great Theme. Thanks..