Selling a Theme by the Thousands: What Thesis Teaches Us

About two years ago, Chris Pearson’s WordPress theme, Thesis, passed the $2 million mark in total sales.

It’s a remarkable achievement for a design-based product, particularly given the industry. Here is a theme-not a platform, but a theme-beating many of the world’s leading independent design firms in revenue, all through passive sales.

This means that the design industry no longer offers only services, but also offers products to its own designers and developers.

While the industry has held many opportunities for work, a designer’s pay has traditionally been based on hours rendered and total output. Pearson has achieved a breakthrough with this theme, cementing the immense value of design-based products.

The term “paradigm shift” is thrown around too often in business articles. But Thesis has truly changed the way designers view their work and allot their time.

Hundreds of developers are now productizing their work and creating assets that earn passive income for them, thus freeing up the time they have for other online projects.

I’ve studied Thesis to pinpoint the factors that have led to its success. From its flexible code to lucrative affiliate programs, there are eight main elements behind the theme’s skyrocketing sales.

If you would like to replicate the theme’s success as an online product, these eight observations would no doubt prove helpful.


 

1. Make Your Product Flexible and Versatile

Take one look at Thesis and you’ll see why it’s so popular. The theme is simple, flexible and versatile enough to work as part of any website. It’s a classic do-all utility priced far below its actual value to most designers.

You could price a niche product as ludicrously as you like and still make a few sales. Buyers are waiting at any price range, no matter how niche the product.

But in order to market your theme to the thousands, you need to create something any designer would find value in. Versatility is a must: create something powerful that also appeals to a wide audience.

 

2. Use Effective, Clear and Tech-Based Marketing

Selling to designers is difficult, and selling to developers is even harder. Developers are used to building their own tools and coding their own themes.

Paying for something that they could create themselves does not seem right to them. Thesis beats this anti-spending mindset quite interestingly.

First, it uses a clear tech-based marketing message to capture the attention of designers. The theme is marketed on its simplicity and versatility, and it employs just the right amount of jargon to enamor developers.

Most products can’t be marketed like this, but tools geared to a technical audience tend to sell better when built around concrete figures and technical features.

 

3. Understand Your Audience

Chris PearsonAs an entrepreneurial developer, Chris Pearson understood the value of appealing to his audience.

Unlike other developers who will use almost any channel to advertise their product, Chris Pearson relied on his audience to spread the word and make Thesis a smashing success.

He also provided a forum for support and formed a community, which made the theme central to the work of many WordPress developers.

Those looking to productize a service need to understand what their audience is looking for. The most effective WordPress themes sell because of fanatical support and fantastic service, as well as a large and influential developer community.

Create a product and a community resource that developers love and you’ll have little trouble marketing the product.

 

4. Use an Affiliate Program

Affiliate programs are a mixed bag, particularly when it comes to design-based products. While the sales benefit of an affiliate program is big-particularly when backed by high commissions-you risk hurting your reputation.

Many affiliates resort to nasty tactics to push your product, and your name and company could wind up being associated with them.

These risks can be minimized by using a tightly controlled affiliate scheme. Thousands of copies of Thesis have been sold through affiliate programs. Indeed, affiliate sales make up the bulk of the revenue. It’s truly an adapt-or-die scenario: to move even a small number of units, implementing an affiliate program is essential.

 

5. Avoid Tight Control

Pearson could have adopted Apple’s approach by limiting the ways in which people could tinker with his product to improve usability and performance. It’s an effective strategy for consumer-based products, but it’s not the right way to market to engineers.

To sell a product like Thesis, which is highly flexible, immensely powerful and built for people who love to tinker with settings, the creator has to make it versatile and unrestricted.

Consider your audience: if it consists of designers, then make the product more competitive by allowing customers to tweak and modify it.

 

6. Design Products That Make Companies Rich

As a designer, your job is to capitalize on every opportunity. When a client spots a gap in the market or an opportunity online, you’re the person they call. Fill this same role with your product. Your theme should help make other people rich.

Thesis does this by providing a simple framework for companies and marketers to build on. Other themes do it by giving companies a straightforward way to create a website. For your theme to sell even modestly, it needs to eliminate a barrier that’s preventing companies from making money.

 

7. Exploit Your Theme to Market Other Products

Most designers are familiar with the concept of a sales funnel. The web developer offers a selection of additional services to the client after completing an order.

Designers of successful themes use a sales funnel to build on their success, leading clients to new products and premium services.

If you’re going to release a product, consider its value as a cross-promotional tool. Many developers price their first product very affordably in the hope that it will enable them to collect email addresses, build a community and market future products.

 

8. Design for Businesses, Not Consumers

Most companies are willing to set aside a sizable budget for any service that will increase their revenue. They’re happy to spend big on products that bring in new business, help them make more money or simplify an otherwise time-consuming (and thus expensive) process.

Thesis is positioned as a product that saves companies time. Position your theme as a product that helps companies, not consumers, and you’ll gain access to a wide audience of people who don’t mind spending money where it counts.


For more professional WordPress Themes, check out Elegant Themes

For more information about this theme go to the Thesis Website

Written exclusively for WDD by Mathew Carpenter. He is an 18-year-old business owner and entrepreneur from Sydney, Australia. Mathew is currently working on Sofa Moolah, a website that teaches you how to make money online. Follow Mathew on Twitter: @matcarpenter. Follow Sofa Moolah on Twitter: @sofamoolah.

What do you think of Thesis and its business approach? How do you market your own themes? Please share your views below…

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  • http://www.webguide4u.com Vivek Parmar

    thesis remarkably change the wordpress theme club. Every third blogger uses thesis theme (even though i’m also in this list).
    Perfect marketing + affiliate programming + targeting top blogs to use thesis theme + creating a hype in industry that it’s the best theme. SEO optimized and bunch of options no need to use to many plugins.
    have to admit chris pearson has really changed the wordpress theme market and thesis 2.0 will be realising soon and already many of them waiting for it.
    Making a perfect product to work out is its customer support you offer and thesis offer a forum dedicated to its customer and 30 day money back gurantee

  • http://wpengineer.com Alex

    Great analysis of Thesis success and congrats to Chris Pearson. We just started with our own WordPress Framework Xtreme Theme last month http://xtreme-theme.com and we try to meet these points you just listed.

    1. Our Framework is very flexible, that allows solid, fluid and flexible layouts. Xtreme One has 6 layout versions with customizable width in %, em or px. Teaser and Footer Areas can be activated including dynamically generated widget layouts in 28 variations and up to 5 columns.

    2. We list all the features and possibilities on our website and we have an extensive FAQ page.

    3. We have a forum for all our users and a knowledgebase for tutorials. Support and service is very important and we try to answer all questions quick and clear. It’s important for us, that every user is very happy!

    4. Our Affiliate Program is right around the corner, so we will start with it very soon.

    5. We don’t have any restriction, the code is GPL, users can use the theme on as many websites they want.

    6. Xtreme is a Framework to build a unique website very fast, safes you a lot of money and time. Expecially for agency who want to have a quick turnaround but keep the flexibility of creating a unique website.

    7. We have some other projects in the pipe and might use Xtreme One to promote Premium Plugins or other things.

    8. Xtreme One helps both, companies and consumers to build a great website in minutes. It’s easy to use for everyone. Just with a few click you can change the whole layout and look of a website.

    Thanks a lot for the great post. We hope that we will also have the same success with Xtreme One in the near future. Try it out at http://xtreme-theme.com

  • http://www.nethall.gr Giannis

    Great article, we love Thesis theme for it’s flexibility overall :-)

  • http://www.graphicdesignboss.com GraphicDesignBoss

    Interesting, After 20 years in Graphic Design I just started a blog on the business of graphic design.

    I had a look around at different themes and chose to go with Standard Theme rather than Thesis or Genesis as I found both didn’t give me enough technical detail on their benefits vs their competition.

    • http://john.do John Saddington

      thx for the shoutout to http://standardtheme.com !

      • http://www.graphicdesignboss.com GraphicDesignBoss

        You are welcome John! You have a great theme with http://standardtheme.com I’ve really enjoyed learning as well from your blog http://www.tentblogger.com :-)

      • Johnathan

        @ John,

        Hadn’t seen your themes before, nice work. I know WordPress can be used as a full fledged CMS now days, but it is nice to see great themes like that made for standard blogs.

  • http://trafficcoleman.com/ TrafficColeman

    Their theme are awesome so this is why people navigate to them..and some of the top marketers online recommend them..so this will drive their sales up..2011 should be even better.

    “Black Seo Guy “Signing Off”

  • http://www.webdevtuts.net/ Marcell Purham | Webdevtuts

    I think Chris had a great idea and implemented something like †hat before anything were out like it. It also were being promoted by some big affiliates which I think contributed to the success of thesis not to forget the customizations was fantastic. Great article!

  • http://jarederickson.com Jared Erickson

    Thesis / Genesis are bloated..

    • http://diythemes.com Chris Pearson

      Hi Jared,

      Over the last two years, I have placed more and more emphasis on speed, optimization, and flexibility. Right now, I’m running a dev version of Thesis that posts ySlow and Google Page Speed numbers that are off the charts, at least as far as the WordPress theme space is concerned (98 on pages with no comments, 94–96 on home page queries), and this is WITHOUT any other modifications such as compression or caching.

      Although I would argue that the current version of Thesis (1.8) is absolutely NOT bloated relative to the competition, I will also be the first to say that there is certainly room for improvement. I have chosen to focus on these areas for version 2.0, and I am extremely confident that the next version will once again shift the paradigm in the theme framework space.

      Finally, if you have any thoughts about specific things in version 1.8 that you think are bloated, please speak up! I am committed to making Thesis 2.0 a masterpiece, and I sincerely appreciate any input you may have that will help me achieve that goal.

  • http://webkohder.net Sara

    Interesting… I’ve gotten a number of requests for work on Thesis themes lately, which always puts me off a bit. This article promised to let us know why Thesis is so popular, which it did, but not by actually describing any technical features that are supposed to make it better. Rather, the article describes its marketing successes.

    The problem is, if you are a programmer with any skill and a personal framework of your own, it’s difficult to justify learning someone else’s framework. I picked up Thesis once for an afternoon quite awhile ago and quickly became frustrated with it. However, I am now running into clients who are convinced, by other developers they get in contact with, that if they want any ease or flexibility, then they have to go with Thesis. Yet they want a completely custom site out of it.

    I’m willing to learn any technology that suits the needs of my clients and helps me earn a living. However, I have yet to hear from anyone WHY I must learn Thesis and use that instead of my own programming skills. To me, Thesis is over-hyped and presents (on my end at least) a problem rather than a solution. So give it your best shot… other than money and popularity, why learn or use Thesis?

    • Johnathan

      Sara,

      The hardest thing to get some people to understand is that if you want a custom design, in most cases, it is just as easy if not easier and cheaper to just start from scratch.

      You would think they would catch on, where in your case, you say someone is coming to you to customize Thesis. When they purchased it in the first place because of “how easy it is to customize”.

      I am kind of fond of frameworks, but only when a framework has exactly what I need to begin with. If you end up stripping away or adding to, using a framework is pretty redundant. IMO

      On a Different note: (About Redundancy)
      I absolutely love wordpress, but in some cases I do try to steer someone away from it, specially when it is not even necessary. Per, a custom static website. Sometimes someone will ask me to build them a static site and because they know about wordpress, they want wordpress to be used… uhg

  • Johnathan

    Did anyone follow the GPL conflict between Matt and Chris?

    • http://diythemes.com Chris Pearson

      Hi Johnathan, that issue was resolved on July 22, 2010, when I adopted the split GPL license for Thesis. WordPress’ GPL license requires that associated pieces of software license their PHP in the same manner, and that’s precisely what I’ve done with Thesis.

      Most people don’t realize that Thesis never actually had a software license until I adopted the split GPL, but that’s one of those important details that tends to get lost in the fray after someone yells, “Food fight!” :D

      • Johnathan

        @Chris,

        Yeah, that whole ordeal did start out pretty flamey or “food fight-ish” as you said.
        (I think I was still in Iraq when it first started) Along with reading, I also watched the video interview you and Matt had. That was pretty ugly. Maybe I misunderstood your standpoint from the interview but it seemed as though you were completely refusing to adopt the GPL. Then again, many of us probably don’t really have a clue about what went on behind the scenes.

        Anyhow, wasn’t trying to stir a pot of stink. :)) It is hard to find people locally to converse about things like this, I guess that is why most of us turn to the blogs and forums. lol

        I will add that I have tinkered with thesis is the way back past, everything has it’s layers of usefulness.

  • http://wpengineer.com Alex

    @Sara, Jared, if other WordPress Framesworks are too bloated, stiff and more a problem than a solution, maybe you should try out Xtreme One. We focus on the product to have a clean and lean code but still a lot functionality included. Outstanding flexibility and we kept the code tight to the WordPress Codex, so no extra code to learn. No additionally plugins needed to run it on all Childthemes. If anyone has more questions, we are glad to help at http://xtreme-theme.com

  • http://www.bionicworks.com Thai Bui

    Great article and all this time I thought that developing WP themes won’t make you any cash. This dude proved me wrong.

  • http://www.speedvalue.com Dan

    Yes he ended up giving in and going split GPL.

    Affiliate Program was the number 1 reason by far, aggressive marketing from his partnership with Brian Clark (and his connections), also it had the best deal of wordpress affiliate programs so other internet marketers jumped on the bandwagon. Many later admit its not that great.

  • http://www.insiderwebtips.com/ Michael Goitein

    Chris Pearson, the author of Thesis – to get a better idea of who we’re talking about here, read this post:

    http://jane.wordpress.com/2010/07/15/thesiswp/

    and some choice Pearson quotes from the original discussion that sparked the issues:

    http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1516950

    Any reason not to use Headway, Genesis, or Thematic?

    Many are moving away from Thesis because of this kind of attitude…

    • http://john.do John Saddington

      wow. hadn’t seen that first one… yikes.

    • Johnathan

      @ Michael,

      Scroll up just a hair, Chris has already been to this post and commented lol

  • http://www.visual-blade.com Daquan Wright

    Wow, hats off to him! That’s awesome and the analysis is great.

    Though pulling this type of success isn’t easy. Everything has to be done right and the timing has to be good to fill a gap where a “need” is required, since businesses don’t spend money just to spend.

  • http://www.rpgrafik.com Rasmus P.

    Okay, I’m sorry if this is a stupid question but here goes:

    Can I use thesis to design a site, and then sell it as a wordpress theme on sites like themeforest?

  • http://gameloo.info gofree

    I am a fan of Headway. Will look into this and see if I will switch.
    Thanks for the info.

  • http://www.bubblefish.com.au/ Graphic design

    I simply love your graphics in this website. Beautiful they are.

  • http://www.newviewit.com website design

    Thesis was in the right place at the right time. Most designers don’t know about SEO which is a major selling point to anyone that wants a website. Thesis made this built in and did it better than others… that’s the main reason Thesis is so popular. $2m congrats that’s a nice chunk of change!

    • Johnathan

      Heck yeah,

      I wonder what the actuall revenue is?