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8 Tips for Creating WordPress Themes That Sell

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Read Time: 11 min

The growing market for premium WordPress themes has made competition tougher than ever. Customers are demanding higher quality and greater functionality leaving theme developers searching for new ways to make their work stand out. Knowing what makes one theme sell better than another can be difficult, but remembering a few basic rules can make a big difference in your total sales.

1. Start with Good Design

This seems obvious, but if you don't start with a good concept, why are you developing it into a full WordPress theme? Creating good themes with advanced functionality is very time consuming and if you didn't have a good design to begin with, you're wasting that time.

Remember the fundamentals of good design. Look closely at your layouts, spacing, alignments, color choices and typography. Make sure you have a quality concept to build on before you write your first line of code.

Examine the structure of the design and ask yourself questions such as:

  • Is the layout easily modified to accommodate left or right sidebars?
  • Can the headers adapt to different content?
  • Can the logo size be changed (within reason) without affecting the layout?
  • Does the theme allow multiple column layouts?

Think about the design and build in flexibility from the beginning

These are only examples of the types of questions you should consider. They will help you determine if your design can handle the basic customizations required by most customers.

There will always be exceptions where your design may limit modification. This doesn't mean the design is bad or will sell poorly. What you need to consider is will the unique aspects of this design be enough to compensate for the limitations? We see this often with portfolio themes where the style limits layout options.

Design and LayoutDesign and LayoutDesign and Layout

Most customers buy themes to be modified for their needs. If you start with a limited design, you limit your potential customers. Think about the design and build in flexibility from the beginning.

2. Be Original

Your design needs to stand out, so find ways to make it original. Sometimes this can be as simple as a unique image container, ribbon graphic or home page slide show. There are many ways to do this, but don’t confuse original with “out of the box”. I’m not suggesting your design have an amoeba-shaped content area or anything like that. Being original only requires you to take one or more elements of the design and make them your own, distinctly different in some way.

do something new or implement it differently to give your site something nobody else has

Everyone gets inspiration from other sources, but what you do with that inspiration makes the difference. Use the ideas you get to generate something unique and indistinguishable from the source. This takes time, but it’s worth the investment. Buyers are attracted to original designs and features they haven’t seen, so do something new or implement it differently to give your site something nobody else has. This helps make your theme memorable and will increase sales as well.

3. Details, Details, Details!

It’s all about the details. Make sure you have sharp lines, smooth gradients, proper alignment and good spacing. Whatever you do, don’t let yourself believe that it’s “good enough” because it probably isn’t.

I once spent over an hour making a smooth noise based gradient for a background because the standard gradient had too much banding. Most customers would never have seen the banding since the area was covered with content, but when I finished the new graphic you could tell it looked better.

Well Formatted CodeWell Formatted CodeWell Formatted Code

Your code is equally as important as the design. When something doesn’t work properly in the admin options, it should be tweaked until it works right. A feature that’s difficult to use or lacking in some way will detract from a theme as much as any design flaw. Create a better user experience and your customers will appreciate it.

Your code is equally as important as the design

Properly indent and comment your code to explain what you are doing and why you’re doing it. This makes it easier for the users that choose to venture into the code. This has less to do with pre-sales and more to do with repeat customers and great testimonials. Advanced users especially appreciate this and will smother you with praise for the time you save them. These testimonials and reviews will only help your sales.

Create a better user experience and your customers will appreciate it

When all the details are done just right you’ll see the difference and so will your customers. They may not even know why it looks so good, but these seemingly unimportant details are what separate good themes from great themes.

4. Follow WordPress Best Practices

There is a reason they’re called “best practices” but the truth is, you should follow them because you’ll be doing yourself and your customers a big favor. This one simple thing will increase compatibility with plug-ins and make it less likely for the theme to have issues with WordPress upgrades.

Get familiar with this site and reference it a lot:

WordPress Codex ScreenshotWordPress Codex ScreenshotWordPress Codex Screenshot

So, how does this help with sales? It’s all part of the big picture and yet another thing that separates good themes from great themes. When you don’t code your theme properly you increase the chances of issues with the ever growing selection of plug-ins and add-ons. Customers are quick to point these issues out and it’s the kind of press you don’t want as it’s sure to slow your sales.

One of the most unique things about WordPress is there are a crazy number of free plug-ins and the average user loves to overload their site with them. I’ve never seen any statistics on the matter, but it would not surprise me if the average site had more than 10 active plug-ins. Getting a reputation for making themes that don’t work with plug-ins is sure to hurt your sales now and in the future.

5. Give the User Options, but Not Too Many

A growing trend among WordPress themes is to provide every setting you can think of to tweak every little thing. This is a good instinct but it’s also important to know what not to include. The basic principle here is control: users want it and developers need to provide it. When a user has control over their site they are much happier, but too many settings could overwhelm a user and that’s not what you want.

How you decide which options are worth including and which are not is a choice for each developer to make based on their theme’s needs. For my themes, I tend to leave out the simpler one-time changes like font size and color. When it’s as easy as opening a file and changing a “12” to “14”, I feel you don’t need an administrative option for that. Identifying these unnecessary options and eliminating them will make it easier for users to get to the options they actually need.

When it's as easy as opening a file and changing a '12' to '14', I feel you don't need an administrative option for that

Finding the right balance of options depends on your preferences and the theme. An option that one theme doesn’t need might be vital to another. Believe it or not, having the right options can and does affect sales. I’ve seen average designs make incredible sales because they had the options users wanted. Figure out what options your theme needs and don’t forget to listen to your customers when they make suggestions.

One of the rules I follow when creating my theme options is if a feature isn’t normal, make sure they can change it. This means for every piece of the design that “breaks the mold” be sure to add an option allowing users to change it to something more standard. For example, if your design has its main menu in the footer, be sure you include an option to switch it to the header instead. Not all users are going to like the unique parts of your design, but may they still want to use it. This way you make sure they can.


6. Always Have a Light Version

to ensure your theme targets the largest possible numbers of customers, always make a light version

Some themes are designed to be on dark backgrounds, but a large percentage of potential customers won't or can't use these designs. The majority of business websites are on white or light colored backgrounds. If you want to ensure your theme targets the largest possible numbers of customers, always make a light version too.

The same rule should be applied in reverse as well. If your theme is designed with a light background color, be sure to make a dark version because without it, you miss those sales. This is one of the easiest ways to increase your customer base.

7. Be Competitive

You don't want to lose sales because you didn't know about a trendy new shortcode that makes your text turn rainbow colors, no matter how useless it seems to you

Knowing what your competition is including in their themes is important. Look at the options other themes like yours have, the shortcodes and basic feature sets and decide if you should have a similar set. When potential buyers look at your theme, they'll be comparing it to similar themes. Ultimately what you include with your theme should be based on what the theme requires and not what your competition is doing. However, if all of your competitors have the same 10 features, consider if you should also have them.

While you don't need to emulate the competition, it's important to be aware of what they're doing. You can be sure your customers know what the other guys are offering. You don't want to lose sales because you didn't know about a trendy new shortcode that makes your text turn rainbow colors, no matter how useless it seems to you. If something is easy to implement and you know it will increase sales, you should consider adding it to your theme.

8. Make a Great Demo Site

Having a great “sales” page or demo site is essential to generating sales. This is the place for you to showcase all the amazing features and styles that can be accomplished using your masterpiece. Make sure you take advantage of this and really showcase your work. Be sure to do a lot of testing to ensure everything works perfectly on your demo. When visitors find problems with your sample content and pages, they start to question the theme’s quality.

If you don't demonstrate the functionality of your theme, you're doing yourself a disservice

Here are some of the keys to a successful demo website:

  • Show a lot of variations: You took the time to create all those options for different page layouts, header variations, custom widgets, etc. Now is your chance to show them off. If you don’t demonstrate the functionality of your theme, you’re doing yourself a disservice.
  • Use great photography: If you’ve ever run a website, you know what a difference great photography can make. The same applies to a demo website. A great theme might not get the time of day from buyers if it has placeholder images instead of real photos. Choosing the right images isn’t just about the quality, but the subject as well. I’ve seen good designs do poorly because they use nothing but video game images. That’s not a bad thing if you’re trying to create a niche video game theme, but if you’re looking to increase sales, try and stick to more mainstream photos of people or places. You can always have a sample skin full of video game graphics, but if that’s all you show the average customer can’t picture their content on your design and will move on to the next theme.
  • Include plenty of content: The demo site needs to look realistic and resemble what a customer wants their own site to be. One of the hardest parts of creating a website is filling it with quality content. Show your demo with full pages of mock content and the buyer will imagine their own site instantly filling with copy just because they use your theme. Ok, it might not be that magical in their mind, but the idea translates over: they’re going to see your demo the way they want their site to be, finished.
  • Add a skin changer: Just like the previous suggestions, having a skin changer lets viewers see the different styles of your design. This makes it easy for the person looking for a dark theme to quickly see that your design offers a dark style. Besides the obvious benefits of letting potential customers visualize your theme using their styles, the skin changers are cool and get the viewer’s attention. This is something you always want.


There are so many variables that play into making a theme a success. Unfortunately there isn't a step by step guide you can follow that will guarantee a great theme. Hopefully with some of these ideas you can increase your chances and produce great products for your customers. By simply having a goal of creating great themes for your customers, rather than just themes that sell, you are sure to produce excellent work and the sales will follow.

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