Premium or Freemium?

Quite a few months ago, I made a proposition to my readers. I put a call out for great designers, loyal to the idea of Open Source software, to contact me and collaborate on an idea that I thought would make many users in the WordPress community very happy.

Today, I want to put out a similar call for your input, and (in a roundabout way) give you more details about the upcoming project.

This idea of mine, which has been stewing since February, 2008, is very similar to the idea that my good friend Brian Gardner just announced over at his site.

So, I want to know from you, my loyal readers … what makes you lay down your hard earned cash when it comes to WordPress themes?

  • Is it the theme itself, features, innovation?
  • Is it the support that comes with a premium theme?
  • Is it the Documentation?
  • Is it the exclusivity (since popular free themes tend to be overused)?

I want to know! Premium themes are very popular right now … more so than they ever have been.  But there must be some reason we pay for a theme.  Are all premium themes really that much better than their free alternatives?

Second question, what if themes — good themes, great themes! — were available for free? Would you be inclined to send the author a “thank you donation”? Would you be willing to pay for support, documentation, tutorials, add-ons, etc.? What about people you know?  Would they be willing to pay for the added support, or would they be perfectly happy with just downloading the theme and nothing else?

I want your feedback! Either reply here in the comments, or hit me up on twitter with an @nathanrice reply.

Thanks!

Comments

  1. Marian says

    I chose a premium theme because the overall design was nicer and more contemporary-looking than any of the free themes, plus it had a lot more of the features of was looking for in one easy-to-use, already completed package. Why do all the work when it’s already been done for you? The great support has been an added bonus I really wasn’t expecting.

  2. Nathan Rice says

    Marian,
    So, with that in mind, would you still be willing to pay someone money (either through a donation, or though purchasing things like support, documentation, and tutorials) if you could get the theme itself (great design, features, and all) for free?

    Nathan

  3. Brad Hart @ A DoFollow Blog says

    I have a couple of developer packs from the big premium theme makers and for the most part I am my clients are extremely happy with the results. That being said I am starting to move away on my personal blogs from those themes now. I originally wanted them because they were unique, but growing less so these days.

    I have begun to tweak and merge different themes, there is something to be said for turning a revolution theme into a better version of livewire without needing to use all the fancy coding. The one big plus that most premium themes have including my tweaked versions is the inclusion of all possible page templates from sitemaps to superior contact forms and all standard codex pages that most freebies miss like author and tag pages.

    I don’t know that I would be inclined to offer any freebie theme designer money since it isn’t unique and I will tweak the hell out of it. Nothing off the shelf will work for me. That isn’t to say the value of included photoshop files for the graphics wouldn’t be worth something to me.

  4. Small Potato says

    Let me end this discussion for you so you can get back to work ;)

    1. People pay for stuff they can’t do or too lazy to do. Great designs, new functions, and customizing their precious themes ’til their hearts content.

    2. The difference between the amount of people willing to donate versus the amount that actually donates is HUGE.

    3. If great themes were free on a regular basis, you’d be a rockstar, not the self-proclaimed kind either. Ugh… I just used the R word.

    4. Documentations: Skip this one if you want more people paying for support hahaha.

    It’s no use figuring the potential of each monetization method. None of them will be able to support your open source biz alone. Come up with as many ways to make money as possible, then actually test them. Ads, t-shirts, donations, paid-support, etc.

    —-

    All of a sudden, the idea of going free is so genius and revolutionary. I guess they never read ramblings about free-premium themes on wpdesigner way back when.

    —-

    Good luck Nathan.

  5. Nathan Rice says

    @Brad,
    Thanks for your input. There are some people who don’t need to pay for a theme OR support. Obviously, this isn’t the audience most of us are targeting. I am part of that same audience. Paying for a theme, for me, just wouldn’t make any sense. I can build my own.

    What I’m wondering about is this -> would a person who would have no problem dropping $70-$100 on a theme be willing to drop that same $70-$100 if the theme itself were free? In essence, when they buy a premium theme, what exactly are they paying for? Is it the support that’s worth the $? Or is it the theme itself?

    @SP
    As always, your input is more valuable to me than you can imagine. Looking forward to talking soon.

  6. Bill says

    I think the move Brian and Jason are making opens all kinds of opportunities for anyone interested in WordPress, whether you’re an end user, designer or whatever. It’s great for the WP community and I am sure the Free themes are more in line with what the founders of WordPress were thinking of when they started WordPress.

    Even though WordPress is fairly easy to learn, when you receive a new theme, they aren’t as easy to set-up as they’re portrayed to be. The pay for help idea will work if it’s run similar to what Brian is already doing at Revolution. I give Brian and his Revolution forums team a 10 for response and help. Make that a 12+. Any help I’ve asked for, I received within a few minutes. They’re as good as vBulletin support:) Pricing will be the key the to success or failure of the help strategy.

    Professionals are porche guys and gals, they want an exclusive look and they will continue to pay, to have themes customized.

    You ask about features, ya we all want all the features. If they’re free, that’s even better.

    Turning things off and on, in the theme, similar to the Vybe theme is the future of WP themes, without a doubt.

    What all this boils down to is this:

    My wife is a photoshop guru and I always tell her… She who knows PhotoShop rules!

    Once you coders get these themes tuned up to the max, it will all be about looks.

    Like everything else in our North American culture, those who make the pretty things, make money.

    As far as donations go, how many people that use WordPress, donate to them? How many people making money from the WordPress code and name, donate to WordPress? Don’t quit your day job if you’re depending on donations. You’d be lucky if you got a beer or to with a “buymeabeer” button.

    Small Potato makes a good point about the documentation:)

  7. Nathan Rice says

    @Bill:
    “Small Potato makes a good point about the documentation:)”

    Yes he does. And when I launch the Elevate project, that will be a pillar of my business model.

  8. Brad Hart @ A DoFollow Blog says

    @Nathan: They pay for the theme themselves, simply because it is different.

    On the note of being able to do it yourself, I think there are plenty of designers out there who have bought a theme, like I did with a couple of friends to figure out how things were done. A quick and dirty education is sometimes the best method, even if it costs a few bucks. A smart designer only needs to see new code to have an epiphany.

  9. Peter A. Mello says

    I started and still blog on wordpress.com (3+ yrs). Last year I wanted to try a few new things that required more flexibility than WP.com allows so I tried a self hosted WP blog.

    I recently purchased a premium theme for a new project because I couldn’t find a free theme that I thought would be as effective; also a lot of things could be handled through the administrative panel which is a place where I’m comfortable. I’m not comfortable in the code but I’m learning a little.

    I’ve received phenomenal service from the designer of the premium theme I purchased and I find this to be one of the main benefits of paying.

    After this experience, I would seriously consider paying an annual fee for service benefits but I believe that only a minority would donate for a free theme. Unfortunately, that’s just human nature. :-(

    In the end, I’m a management consultant not a techie and my time is better spent on business development/consulting and not mucking around in code.

    I enjoy your blog and am thankful for learning a lot!

  10. Chris Ross says

    I wish more great themes came for free, but I understand why they don’t. On the other hand, great work gets more work … so personally I think the $69 you can sell a premium theme for vs. the $6900 you can get in work from a good theme becoming popular is not a though question.

  11. Kanyon says

    Hi, Nathan – I must say the entrepreneurial spirit you and Brian are sahring right now is very inspiring to me.

    I only started testing this blogging stuff a year ago and I thought I was going to fall behind. But, now I’m on a proactive roll to get my blog up and going. I’m realizing that a premium theme is THE way to jump-start my blog with a professional, up-to-date, and high-powered-ready-for-business image. I don’t mind paying upfront for the great boost in appearances/features and satisifaction of knowing my blog is great!

    As far as offering open-source premium themes, I guess you’d be offering them free because they’re open-source, right? Well, it would come down to a business model for you and your longevity. You could have the theme be free, then charge for the support and customization, which could be done on a per feature basis – depending on the feature.

    Anyway, I hope the best for you and Brian in this new direction of both your endeavors.

    Thanks!
    -Kaye

  12. Nathan Rice says

    @Kanyon:
    Thanks for the kind words!

    Yes, open source themes will be 100% GPL and free to download. I definitely don’t want to be a zealot … I have to pay the bills, so a business model very similar to the one your outlined will be implemented. Wish us luck!

  13. Bill says

    Nathan: You started this post asking questions. This last comment jumped into a business model. What’s happening man?

    I’ve learned a lot from your posts, a lot. I got hooked with WordPress because of Brian Gardner’s free themes and when he went “premium”, well, I knew I wanted to learn what ever I could about WordPress and themes. There’s a lot to learn for an old guy like me, but I’m getting there, thanks to posts like yours.

    I admire Brian’s design talents, but this latest move, the open source thing, in my opinion is genius.

    I’ve read on a site that “if you can use MSWord – you can use our WordPress theme.” Not so! The themes work out of the box, but as soon as a user wants to add anything, text or graphics, they have to know a whole bunch of tech things. The potential for a Theme help system is enormous.

    I’ve used vBulletin for years, so I hope you’ll choose it to run your forum, if you go that route.

    Help… we all need it and you’re the perfect guy to run a forum or offer help. Best of luck on choosing the business model that will work for you.

  14. Nathan Rice says

    @Bill:
    Well, the dirty little secret of free and open source software is, we can’t sit at our computers all day writing blog posts and answering comments without SOME way of generating income.

    The same goes for free themes. And since you bring up the very good point of support, learning, and teaching … it just so happens that if you need that kind of stuff, that’s exactly what you’ll get out of an ElevateThemes.com premium membership. And in the grand scheme of things, I think you’ll find the price point pretty tempting as well.

    But don’t worry, the tutorial-type posts here at the blog won’t be going away. This blog’s been active for about a year now, and the second year is going to have SO MANY more posts than the first.

    (PS – look out for a redesign real, real soon) ;-)

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  16. Rustyn says

    This website/WP thing is new to me, but I write for a site using Brian’s RevChurch theme. I don’t mind paying the $60 if it comes with tech support for webtards like myself IF I can actually make it user friendly. But so far free themes have either been bland and useless, and FREE premium themes don’t seem to work properly unless you’re a webguru.