Is the Death of Niche Themes in WordPress Nigh?

Let me get straight to the point: I am calling for the death of all WordPress niche themes Yes, all “rock band”, “real estate”, “restaurant”, “yacht club”, “yorkshire terrier trimming salon” themes should all go the way of the dinosaur. Maybe there are numbers to back this long standing trend. Maybe the Portland Yorkshire Terrier… Read more Is the Death of Niche Themes in WordPress Nigh?

Let me get straight to the point:

I am calling for the death of all WordPress niche themes

Yes, all “rock band”, “real estate”, “restaurant”, “yacht club”, “yorkshire terrier trimming salon” themes should all go the way of the dinosaur. Maybe there are numbers to back this long standing trend. Maybe the Portland Yorkshire Terrier club will boycott ThemeForest if these tragedies of marketing ploys go away. But I believe it’s for the best of the WordPress community for us to, starting today, simply ignore them as if they don’t exist.

Why?

Oh… you’re still reading. I guess you want reasons. OK.

Your website is not enhanced by a theme because of the stock photography it came with. Every theme tries to sell itself with amazing sliders and stock photography and whatnot. The problem is though that you are going to have to replace all of those beautiful images with your own images. If the niche theme is about golf, but you’re a football club, honestly, it won’t matter. Once you put your football images in there, it’s a football theme. But the same is true of the “business” category of themes. These are typically clean and well structured designs. You can easily take a “business” theme and turn it into a church website or parent-teacher association website.

Themes are not for functionality. Some niche themes try to pitch their niche-iness to you by showing how they have these amazing custom post types that will let you populate your site with car posts, or woven basket products with exactly the information you need. The truth is though, you’re not married to this theme for life. You’re going to want to swap it out and whatever custom functionality your Underwater Basket weaving theme came with that makes it perfect for Underwater Basket weaving websites should actually be put into a plugin, not the theme.

Content is King. This should be obvious, but your website CONTENT is what makes it a “Yacht Club for Poor Inner City Kids” website, not the layout or images.

Let me ‘esplain… no let me summup

Let’s take an auto sales theme. Take a look at this beauty. Seriously, this says “Imma CAR Website” like nothing else.

awesome-auto-sales-theme

 

The trouble is, swap out the images and text and now it’s a Produce website:

Really Good Produce
Really Good Produce

You see, a niche theme really is just a ploy, targeted at your sensibilities. But don’t fret you have lots of other viable and much more reliable options.

Alternatives to the Niche Theme

You see, a “niche” theme is a theme designed for a niche market. That’s really all it takes to be a niche theme. It has nothing to do with how the pages or posts or categories or anything are displayed. It’s all about the demo presentation. This is just bad practice as far as themes go in my mind.

Instead, a theme should be considered as the frame of your content. But your content is not merely text, it’s videos, PDFs, images, all of the above. Your theme can’t and shouldn’t try to control those things, merely provide a frame for them to be highlighted.

In the world of ways developers can build front-end websites, here’s a few theme related tools available besides Niche Themes:

Parent/Child Themes — This is perhaps one of the most common ways developers build out your design. They take a well designed “parent” theme and create a “child” theme which can be used to override only the elements they want to override of the parent theme. It’s very simple and straight forward and effective. The biggest problem with parent/child theming is how all the styles that are found in the child theme are basically output twice, meaning once in the parent theme and then again as the final version in the child theme. This isn’t a major issue, but developers who want the leanest cleanest code base for their theme steer away from child themeing because of this.

Starter Themes — When Automattic released Underscores, their ideal starter theme, it launched the concept of starter themes into much wider use an adoption by developers (by my recollection at least). These are bare bones code that provide the bare minimum of what you need to get going with building out a theme. A lot of premium themes start with a starter theme like Underscores or their own custom starter themes. This helps development of the theme go more quickly and also ensures the lightest footprint in terms of codebase since the developer is basically building out the whole design from this. The reason why some developers choose not to use starter themes is because it’s almost like starting from scratch. Underscores only provides the bare minimum of responsive design, while other starters like Roots and Bones go much further (some say too far) in providing an almost full featured theme Framework (see below).

Theme Framework — The most popular and well known theme framework in WordPress is Genesis. But Genesis is also a hybrid Framework and Parent Theme. Basically, the Genesis framework is your parent theme, and every Genesis site is then built on a Child theme. There’s a lot of discussion about whether Roots or WP-Foundation are starter themes or Frameworks. Roots calls itself a Starter Theme, so I’m comfortable defining it as such. The consensus though, among WordPress developers seems to be that the main difference between a Framework and a Starter theme is that you don’t touch the code of a framework (like Genesis) where a starter theme is meant to be tweaked and built upon directly to produce your end result.

Drag and Drop Plugin — It may seem odd to include a type of plugin in a discussion about themes, but bear with me. Drag and Drop plugins like Visual Composer or Velocity Pages can be added into any theme you have, including a Starter Theme or Child Theme. The idea here is to allow users to be able to build out complex layouts on any page or post of their website. These tools can be very powerful, but the criticism is often around the bulk of the code required to do the drag and drop functionality, making your WordPress admin slow, or the builk of code they output on the front-end. I have yet to test out Velocity Pages, but it promises to address both of those issues well, at least as far as this guy says.

Builder Themes — The latest trend in complex themes is the “builder theme.” These are a sort of hybrid between a Starter Theme/Parent Theme and Drag and Drop Plugin. They provide a decent looking layout with minimalist colors right out of the box. Then on each page, you have a really intuitive interface for building complex layouts. The big benefit of these is that they put a lot of power into the hands of folks who can’t code, while being relatively well coded. Here’s a few of the top contenders in this category:

The Invisible Hand of the WordPress Market is Moving

I’m not the only one trumpeting starters and frameworks and builders. If you look around the latest movements in the WordPress theme world you’ll see this cropping up in really surprising but promising places.

Here’s some really good examples:

  • WP Site Care launched “Flagship” with a free starter theme called Compass. It’s a really robust starter theme designed to give theme designers every tool they need to create just about anything they want. Instead of buying that Rock Band theme, get a kick-ass developer who knows how to use Compass to build something serious. The other remarkable thing Flagship will be doing is selling themes built off compass for a serious premium of $199. But look at the package, I’m a big fan of what they are proposing.
  • DigiSavvy put out a great starter theme called “Some Like it Neat“. I think Flagship took some notes from that bad boy.

I don’t really know what to call this category, because so far it feels like it’s one “theme” in a category all it’s own. I think I’ll call it a Custo-Flexy-Builder Themes (or CFB’s for short). This whole category belong to ThemeFoundry’s Make theme. I want to call it a category because I’d love to see a lot more of these types of themes. Here’s some of the reason’s why Make is unique and incredible:

  • It uses WordPress’s Theme Customizer really well. One thing a lot of premium themes get wrong is avoiding the Customizer. Make doesn’t make that mistake, and instead leverages the Customizer to get a lot of the major layout and content settings done for you right up front. Then, if you have their premium plugin (see below), you get some present “skins” to give your whole site a head start right away.
  • The Builder is template driven, not shortcode driven. This means if you move to a different theme you’re not going to be shocked by the shortcode-soup on all your pages like you would with Visual Composer or other shortcode-driven tools.
  • It’s completely Child Themeable. This is a big part of what made me be REALLY impressed with Make. The builder itself can be edited via a child theme, which allows you to add in custom functionality to the builder itself if necessary.
  • Make Plus. This is how they monetize the theme. But it’s also how they take it all to the next level. Currently Make Plus gives you several additional features in the builder and helps you integrate with WooCommerce and Easy Digital Downloads. These alone are awesome features. But developers will love the fact that they separated them out into a Plugin allows you to hook into it’s filters and actions for further customization without changing the codebase at all.

Lastly, I’ll mention a plugin that I’ll have a full review of in the near future: Slocum Theme’s Conductor. This takes the idea of the Drag and Drop page builder and flips it on it’s head. Basically, instead of putting all the customizations of a builder in-page, Conductor lets you fully customize your site with Live Refresh by putting all their tools in the WordPress Customizer. It’s a really incredible product. Full review to come, I promise!

But I Can’t Code!

I know I mentioned a lot of tools for developer here. And maybe you came here hoping I’d give you the easiest way to build your theme without touching code. I mean, that’s probably why you wanted a Niche Theme in the first place. Well, let me pop your bubble: Hire a Developer! If you care about your website at all, hire a developer. If you want to succeed with your website at all, hire a developer. If you want to throw something up on the screen and “see what happens”, by all means find your favorite niche theme and have fun, a developer can help you clean up the mess when your experiments are all over.

Choose Wisely

chosen-wiselySeriously, there’s just no reason to go looking for an “atomic weapons laboratory” theme anymore. If you’ve got great content, a decent logo, a few pics, all you need is an awesome starter theme or Flexy-Builder Theme and you’re set.

Don’t be that guy who vanishes in dust and wind because you bought a “Harpies for Justice” theme. Choose wisely instead.

UPDATE

A fun Twitter conversation pointed me to Jake Caputo’s DesignCrumbs as a good example of Niche Themes. Take for example his “Stocky” template. It’s targeted at Photographers and specifically Photographers that want to sell their work on their website. But notice that there are no Custom Post Types in the Theme (as far as I can see), and all of the functionality comes from EDD or other extensions. At this point I’d say Jake is doing it right.

I think the key to doing a niche theme well is integrating it with popular, well supported plugins so your customers can leverage them for the functionality they want. More collaboration, less trying to make your theme do what it’s not supposed to do.

22 thoughts on “Is the Death of Niche Themes in WordPress Nigh?

  1. I really enjoy [and habitually USE] a theme that has function built in [gasp! no way!], and here’s why.
    Let’s say there’s a WordPress Theme that’s promoted as a Real Estate Theme. It categorizes the listings, assigns them an agent, pulls all the agent’s contact details, lays it out on each of their listings correctly, the overall layout of images, more images, house details, contact details, and more is done correctly, and the theme has baked in IDX listings from [example] dsIDXpress®.

    Now, why in the world do I need to separate all that into plugins, hope the plugins play well with each other, keep updating all the plugins, tweak and / or code each plugin, and jack with all that? Seriously think about that for a second. 1 plugin for contact us, another for the image carousel, another for a company directory, perhaps a plugin for a custom post type, additional fields, on and on and on it goes…! Just to make a ‘real estate’ oriented theme?

    YUP!

    Now, run through the same scenario for the auto shop that has around 50-80 cars: assigning sales people, ACF for each element of the cars, CPT for each car type. Lather rinse repeat for the restaurant’s functionality of ordering food, sorting by ____, and things like that.

    Really?

    I’ll buy the fact that images can be interchanged. But… let’s use Steven Gliebe’s Themes at churchthemes.com or even churchthemes.net’s Themes as an example. They manage sermons, they manage people, and those themes FUNCTIONs are geared specifically for a niche. Yes, they have plugins that do it as well, but basically, the themes do exactly what’s needed.

    They are a niche, and they are a niche that won’t go away.

    1. I’d say churchthemes.com would be best served by having an awesome starter theme, then selling their church-oriented child themes and a core-functionality plugin for all those extras. It’s not as if I’m saying there’s no such thing as a “niche market”. Of course there is, it’s just that those markets would be better served by doing it right, rather than pretending that your X-theme with church images in it is an actual “church theme” rather than a niche targeted demo of a vanilla theme.

      1. Matt, I don’t know if you’ve seen our website or our plugin but we certainly don’t pretend to be X-Theme with church photos in our demo. A theme that tries to be all things to all people usually turns out to be a bloated mess. We don’t do marketing gimmicks at churchthemes.com.

        All of our functionality is in a plugin (post types for sermons, events, staff and locations) which is used by multiple church theme providers so customers can more easily switch. The themes only present content, which is what themes are made for. “Doing it right” is our core philosophy. Your update above about Jake’s approach sounds like what we’ve been doing.

        Church websites need to present content in a different way than other websites. This is true of many niches. As an example, we make a space in the header for showing Sunday Services and other events (latest sermons can be shown too). Our newest theme has a space in the footer for location and service times. Generic themes cannot possibly address the presentational needs of every niche.

        You could say go grab Twenty Fourteen, an events plugin, something to list sermons, something to list people and another plugin for locations. It will almost always be ugly and disconnected unless the buyer has the skill and time to style a child theme. How many generic themes happen to have styling for the unique combination of plugins that are needed for a niche? Niche theme designers can specifically support plugins that meet their customers’ needs.

        Another pro for buyers of niche themes is expertise. A niche theme producer knows his industry. They can provide support geared towards people in that market. To illustrate this, what advice about making an effective church website will an atheist be able to provide? It is wrong to assume all niche themes are marketing gimmicks.

        But I agree, there is a problem with many niche themes. A lot of big theme shops and many ThemeForest authors are on the lookout for the next niche to exploit. The problem is they have no experience in that particular area. One day they make a restaurant theme, the next a church theme then they move onto a hotel theme. They’re not experts and they don’t stick with any one thing for very long. This does not result in the best product or customer service experience.

        I say absolutely use a niche theme when available but stick with a provider that focuses primarily or only on that niche and follows WordPress development standards. Niche theme providers that meet this criteria are far and few.

      1. Obviously I need to take a closer look at churchthemes. Looks really promising. And that article is spot-on, thanks for sharing. Like I mentioned to Brad, it’s not that there isn’t a market, it’s that the large majority of shops I see spitting out niche themes do it really badly. So, thanks for being an exception to that rule!

      2. “it’s not that there isn’t a market, it’s that the large majority of shops I see spitting out niche themes do it really badly” = Nailed it.

        That’s exactly it. I don’t see anything wrong with developing niche themes, the problem is when people create themes just for ranking on search engines (or trying to convince WP novices) by saying it’s a niche theme but really it’s just a framework with stock photos.

        I’ll be the first to admit I have done things in the past just for Search Engines, but there is a point where things do get out of hand 😉

  2. So melodramatic, Mr. Cromwell! =)

    If I told you that my first non-starter theme offering to the repo is going to be a niche theme you’d cry tears of blood. I’m aiming at releasing a single page ‘resume’ theme. I know, I know. But hold on…

    That said, I think you underscore a bad habit that niche themes promote. It really promotes a “cart before the horse” mentality. So I’m with you there. A theme should always be purpose built, it should specifically achieve a goal. If you get something custom built by a skilled developer and designer, then you’re going to get a theme that does that. I think a lot of folks who pick up that niche theme do so without thinking about how the site will actually help achieve their goals. Eventually they have that discussion about those few items they wish their site could do but it can’t for whatever the reason. We’ve all had THOSE talks.

    But if I release a niche theme aimed at folks wanting a nice ‘resume’ site and the theme achieves its goal, then that’s not bad. There’s beauty in simplicity.

    I think, when building anything, you start with the end in mind. You start with desired results, functionality and purpose. Those higher level discussions should happen first; then work backward from there. Now, if a niche theme can cover those higher-level items, goals, or what have you, then pick it up. Otherwise, bring on a skilled dev who is masterful with their tools and they will build you something that will achieve your goals. Niche themes are built and presented in such a way that people are encouraged to “skip” those high-level touchpoints.

    Just my two pennies.

    1. I’ll beta test your resume theme. Email me and then I’ll berate it for it’s nichiness! 😉 No seriously, I can give a hat tip to niche themes that do it well, but I’d love to see actual real life examples. Any links on you Vasquez?

  3. Niche themes have their place. Just like frameworks, “do-everything” themes, and custom themes built for a project. It’s a big world, there’s room for everyone.

  4. Niche themes are created for three reasons:

    1. Marketing. It’s easier to sell a restaurant theme to a restaurant, just like it’s easier to sell vegetables to a vegetarian. It’s what they’re looking for when they’re ready to buy. All-in-one packages are a much easier sell. “You pay $79 and get a neat little package of everything you need to fire up a real estate website in under 30 minutes!”

    2. Feature specificity. Sure, Divi and X Theme may give you the ability to do pretty much anything, but these types of themes are bloated as crap and slow as dirt in many cases. Additionally, just because you “can” build your own website with a theme like Divi, that doesn’t always mean you “should.” Just because you’re a great dentist, X Theme won’t magically turn you into super web designer. Odds are, you’re going to make a crappy site with a poor conversion rate. When it comes to gaining visibility for your business, don’t take a chance just because you can cut corners and save money on a designer or developer. There are inexpensive alternatives but DIY is rarely the best one. Also, many niche themes use feature plugins to work in tandem with themes to transform WordPress into a very specific type of site, whether that’s a site for a church, a recipe blog, or a yoga studio.

    3. Search engine discoverability. Themes should be built for search engines to be able to discover important metadata and show that data in search results. Plugins designed to enhance search engine metadata only go so far. If your theme doesn’t implement best practices and industry-specific metadata structures, you’re screwed.

      1. Why do you consider Hueman to be a niche theme? It’s designed for flexibility, not to a specific market. I think we’re defining “niche” in different ways.

      2. No, I think there’s a big difference between a theme with a purpose and a niche theme. You can see all the examples I gave in the article. And I wouldn’t consider Hueman purely a Blog theme, it’s actually pretty robust. But… I’ll agree that my site is in need of a serious refresh and when that happens it’ll be from a starter theme or Make.

  5. Thanks for the mention of our Conductor Plugin Matt!

    I agree to a point about what you are saying. Our Slocum Themes, which in half of our cases are “niche” themes, are rarely used as advertised. But there has to be a way to get exposure out. There has to be a thought process behind what it did.

    At some point, someone took a surfboard and said, “Man, wouldn’t it be cool to ride this thing on asphalt!”

    There needs to be something to inspire people to naturally play. Niche themes are also great for people who aren’t writing articles about WordPress themes and want an entrance or introduction into themes as well as a way for agencies to wireframe. I know I am guilty of thinking most themes don’t need to be niche either for the same reasons, but I always like to think about the “other guys”.

    1. Hi Dan, appreciate the feedback. With all the comments here and on FB and Twitter I feel like most folks generally agree because of the current state of niche themes across the board, but everyone also pushes back that there is still a “market” for them. You guys at Slocum definitely know what you’re doing, so I’d generally agree that there’s a market for it. I just think there’s also got to be a future oriented, best practices method for targeting your theme for a market without crippling the user by locking up functionality in the functions file, like what Jake Caputo did with Stocky.

      Thanks for chiming in, I think it’s a helpful discussion for the WP community.

  6. Hi Matt great post, I couldn’t agree more! And thank you for the mention 🙂

    One thing I did want to point out is the x theme actually uses the visual composer but modded to work with their theme (as noted on one of their support responses) where I include the full unmodified version of the plugin in total which I believe is better.

    The biggest issue in the market is people aren’t willing to pay developers to help modify their themes via child theme functions/CSS so they think they have to buy something that is specific to their niche. If you want a quality site you need to start with a quality theme but u can’t stop there you will still need to put time and money into it because even with the best theme ever you still want it to be unique and reflect your business model.

    Sorry for any typos in my phone 🙂

  7. Wrong on so many levels. It’s people like you that encourage multi purpose or better said purposeless themes. Clearly you’re not a theme developer otherwise you ‘d understand how different a theme must be designed when serving a specifuc purpose. Please, avoid discuss matters for which you have superficial knowlegde. And yes, blog themes are also a niche. It’s bloggers niche.

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