What Should Separate a Premium Theme from a Free Theme?

If you’ve spent any time at all looking around at WordPress themes that are available either for free or as a premium theme, you certainly know that there’s a very wide variety of quality available. Of course, that’s to be expected when you’re dealing with free themes. Anyone can create and distribute a theme for WordPress, which is one of the strengths of using WordPress as your CMS or blogging platform. However, that also means you’ll have to be careful when selecting a theme.

With the rise in popularity of premium themes and the increasing demand for them, the line between free theme and premium theme can be difficult to distinguish. I’ve read from a number of theme developers that have been unsure of how to distribute their theme, for free or for sale.

Obviously, as a developer selling the theme can be a more appealing option than giving it away. But there are certainly some very high quality themes that are available for free, which makes it difficult for buyers to justify spending money on a theme that may not be any better.

One common approach for a developer in this case is to price the theme very low, attempting to draw buyers that are willing to pay for a theme, but don’t want to spend $100 or so for one of the more popular premium themes. In my opinion, this is typically a counterproductive move. Even the best premium themes sell for prices that are extremely reasonable for what the buyer is getting. Pricing a theme for a fraction of that price is like admitting that your theme isn’t up to that caliber and not worth the same amount of money.

If I were in the market for a premium theme, I would choose the one that is a best fit for my needs, regardless of whether the price is $20 or $100. Maybe that’s not the case with all customers, but since the prices of premium themes are still considerably lower than the cost of a custom design, I think it makes little difference at that point. In this example, is it a good decision to spend the extra $80 to get a much better theme that will produce better results? I’d say it is. For that reason, I don’t see lower-priced premium themes taking much of the market away from the top selling premium themes.

Typically, I feel that lower-priced, lower-quality premium themes have a difficult time separating themselves from the best free themes. Which brings me to the title of this post – what separates a premium theme from a free theme? As a blogger or website owner, what would you expect from a premium theme that you couldn’t get from a free theme? Anyone attempting to sell a premium theme needs to address this question in their own work.

Here are my thoughts of the differences between free and premium:

1. The Look

When most of us are searching for a theme, the first impression is controlled by the overall look and appearance of the theme. We all have different likes and dislikes, and there are themes of all styles imaginable, but generally we’re drawn to a theme first because of the design/appearance.

Take a look at the images below and you’ll see some premium themes that just flat out look better than what you can get with a free theme.

Revolution News by Brian Gardner:

Revolution News

In fact, you can see a good example of the difference between a free theme and a premium theme by looking at Darren Hoyt’s free Mimbo theme and the premium version, Mimbo Pro. While the free version is an excellent, clean design that’s perfect for customizing, it’s not the same polished design that you’ll get with Mimbo Pro (of course there are other differences between the two than just appearance alone).

Free version:

Mimbo

Premium version:

Mimbo Pro

2. Support

Some developers of free themes will provide support to those who are using their themes, but generally you’ll be forced to search for your own solutions through Google searches and forums. You may get some help from the developer, but that can hardly be expected with a free theme. With most premium themes you’ll get support that’s a little bit higher quality. You still are likely to have a forum to visit for fixes, but the theme developers themselves are usually able and willing to help out through the forums. Still, there will be a wide variety of support provided from theme sellers and developers, but generally this is a separation point for free and premium themes.

3. Complete

There’s a lot that goes into developing a theme, but the theme can operate with a minimal number of files as well. Many free themes don’t include everything that’s possible, primarily because there is not a strong need to. When buying a theme, it’s understandable to expect a more complete product than you could get for free.

4. Ready to Go Out of the Box

Most bloggers that use free themes will customize them to some extent, and many theme developers will take this into consideration. There are a large number of free themes out there that are really meant to be a foundation where someone else can expand and create exactly what they want.

With a premium theme you should be able to start using it with almost no customization. Of course, header images and logos will usually need to be inserted, but generally there should be little customization needed to achieve an excellent look.

5. Clean Code

Some free themes look really nice, but when you open them up you’ll find a mess in the code. Most are not well optimized for search engines, and some are using code that isn’t well developed. With a premium theme, it’s reasonable to expect that the developer has taken the time to create clean, optimized code that will function very well.

6. Advanced Features

Most premium themes are also able to offer users some additional features. So on top of getting a better-looking design, the purchaser may also get improved functionality. The features available will vary from theme to theme, but there’s usually something there to entice potential buyers and to make the theme worth the price. Free themes rarely have any kind of advanced features.

7. Scalable

Because blogs are constantly adding new content, it’s pretty easy to outgrow a theme. While the theme should still work, it may not provide the best options for highlighting certain content or for creating effective navigation that makes the site more usable. Many of the better premium themes can be used by sites and blogs of all sizes. News or magazine-style themes for example can scale very well because of the structure of the theme and the navigation. When the site grows, the content can still be found relatively easily, and these themes are built to support sites with this type of need.

Scalability is not always a concern, but if you’re going to be growing and expanding your blog once you buy a premium theme, it’s best to not outgrow that theme in a few months.

8. Easy to Maintain

Most free themes now are widget-ready, which makes it easier for site owners to maintain and make minor changes to sidebars. However, I would expect that premium themes take a more aggressive approach to developing a maintainable site than a free theme. Again, each theme is going to have its own features, but if you’re paying for a theme you should be able to get something that is maintainable.

Insight from a Premium Theme Developer

To continue on this subject, I’ve invited Darren Hoyt to share a few of his own thoughts here. As mentioned earlier, Darren has released both a free and a premium version of Mimbo, so I thought he would have some good insight on what should separate the premium themes from free themes (and I was right – he does). Here is Darren’s take on the subject.

The free version of Mimbo did some non-standard things with WordPress which required additional efforts from the user. So when it was time to create a paid Pro version, I knew we’d have to minimize the amount of hand-coding required to edit header images, ads, color schemes, carousel and category modules. Ben Gillbanks and I collaborated on a custom control panel which enhanced the value of the theme and increased user-friendliness:

(click to see full-size)

I never thought a paid theme should require the effort of downloading additional WP plugins, so Ben and I also built a nice list of features right into the templates: an image gallery, contact form, Related Content module, Recent Comments module, author-highlighted comments, thumbnail-resizing, HTML-formatter buttons, printer-friendly options, and so on. We tried to make Mimbo Pro more than just a theme or “skin” and more like an application unto itself.

Obviously by going the paid-theme route, we knew we’d also employ the best practices used by any reputable web firm. This meant clearly commented code, valid markup, well-written CSS and cross-platform testing. Written documentation, video documentation and FAQs were provided and continue to evolve based on user feedback.

Since the theme launched, the most important part has been support and interaction with buyers. We have a forum set up for general questions and customization help, but also a separate help-desk for more urgent requests. When upgrades are available, we distribute them via password-protected Google Group, where we also post member news. Currently it’s just Ben and me giving support to hundreds of users, but everyone has been very patient and realistic about receiving help.

All of these things help distinguish a premium theme from a free theme. My prediction is those distinctions will evolve as the market grows. Users are always going to want a little bit more functionality for the price they pay, so it should motivate premium theme designers to stay aware of user-needs and set the bar high.

What are Your Thoughts?

As a theme developer or as a theme buyer, what would you expect from a premium theme that would separate it from free themes?

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