Test Drive For Plugins and Themes is Not Popular Enough

The pricing dilemma with WordPress themes and plugins is a critical problem, mostly due to the widespread race to the bottom. Unfortunately, people don’t understand the magnitude of a problem until they are personally involved and affected by the consequences.

Discussing Business With Developers

Business owners and Developers working together
Business owners and Developers working together

That’s on of the reasons why I often have a hard time discussing business with developers working on a payroll for large companies. Part of them are not interested, nor involved with the actual business processes, or don’t really care where do money come from. After all, that’s why CEOs, sales reps, marketing folks and everyone else are hired, right? Sadly, that’s not a cost that freelancers and small agencies (up to 5 folks) can usually afford, which is practically the majority of our community.

There are exceptions of course, but that scenario is applicable in any problem of the industry, with the majority of the folks who don’t spend their spare time brainstorming about global problems around them.

There’s nothing wrong with those who have no experience in the complete business cycle of building and growing a business, selling products and services and everything else that building a profitable business requires. But I don’t appreciate it when folks are strongly opinionated on processes and demand changes that affect the vast majority of the users of a platform or a service.

There are plenty of use cases regarding companies implementing changes that users didn’t ask for, or need. Syed shared his personal experience in his latest talk “Perfection is a Curse” when he spent months on features that drastically reduced his visits and increased the bounce rate. Foursquare ignored their users when they split their app into a listing engine and Swarm, a simple and fairly useless check-in app. Now they’re resurrecting the badges and mayorships since they lost a large number of users and key employees as well.

In fact Chris nailed it with a simple tweet last week:

Onboarding Process For Customers

Most theme and plugin shops employ a simple revenue strategy – selling copies of their products, either one-off, with an annual subscription or regular support fees. It’s a good deal, but there’s one major problem: how to convince your customers that your product is worth using?

That’s where SaaS businesses jump right in – introducing a freemium model with a limited free service, or a free trial for their usage. The key thing here is the control.

It’s easy to restrict users from accessing your self-hosted product. They don’t have physical access to your servers, and can’t alter your code either. As an owner to a SaaS solution, you can always kick users out if needed, deactivate their accounts, update their platform and so on. It’s easy like that, even if someone gets unauthorized access to your product for some reason.

What most plugin and theme authors forget is that users are not necessarily convinced that a given product is a good fit for their business.

My team is generally independent when it comes to off-the-shelf themes or plugins. The majority of our work is custom WordPress development, and it includes building platforms from scratch and creating custom themes when needed. We are able to design a clear flow tailored to our customers’ needs, and don’t spend a lot of time looking for existing solutions to use (other than a limited list of trusted libraries or plugins that we integrate almost everywhere).

But occasionally I build sites for friends. And when I do that myself, I discuss the process with them and let them know that we’ll use an existing theme if that’s a free work, and will follow a simple and straight-forward process for bootstrapping their business – and once they grow and become profitable, we can discuss a custom solution that boosts their business accordingly.

And last time I did my due diligence on premium themes, membership plugins and other available solutions, I got stuck with making them work as I expected.

Some themes listed the homepage as a static front-page template. Others had theme options. One of the themes listed the latest posts in a category.

Some had header images or sliders  as a custom post type, others had theme options for that and a subset of those listed featured images from posts. The flow with some of those themes was incompatible with my business case, and I could not use them in that scenario – even if the demo looks great.

WordPress Theme Demos and Dummy Data

My friend Justin shared his concerns while looking for a premium theme for one of his projects:

I felt the same way during my research and I completely agree that it’s a major problem in most theme markets.

In fact, even though I use a WooThemes theme on my blog here and we have integrated some of their themes for our clients, I spent 2 hours with one of their themes trying to make the header work. This was the first thing on my list and I was completely unable to make it work properly and look like the demo without writing additional 60-80 lines of custom CSS.

They also had a TimThumb option in their Theme Options panel which was frightening and their featured header layover was displaying under my header image.

I have a developer account with them and I was able to try several themes before giving up, but the end result was: I couldn’t set a single header image with some text in the center, no matter what I did, despite of the theme demo they presented.

And even if I was able to do that, I had no clue how will the theme accommodate my copy. And whether I can fine tune it in a way that makes sense for my friends’ business.

I often find it easier to add a div with three columns for services instead of using some of their shortcodes, templates, blocks or whatever.

The Music Theme Nightmare


I had another client who was in love with the demo of a ThemeForest theme. We all know what’s the average code quality there and I wasn’t thrilled, but it was a good client of mine with a noble cause that I was willing to support, so I went with it. One of our junior developers spent 12 hours trying to make it work as per the demo – even with their demo data importer. I went on spending 5 extra hours fixing critical code issues and applying fairly minor changes.

The header had approximately 1200 lines of custom PHP code on top of it, most of that was not used in the majority of the templates.

They had 6 different sliders, all of them included by default, regardless of the fact that a single slider could be activated at a time. The landing page called close to 8,000 lines of code in order to generate a few blocks, and the available HTML markup consisted of 500-600 lines of HTML code. Adding a single div or paragraph somewhere required editing some core theme functionality, in some of their includes.

I also did a case study in our office on Avada – one of the top three selling themes on ThemeForest ever – discussing at least 20 different problems with terrible code in the majority of the templates. But regardless of my opinion, the theme was sold 132,000 times as I’m writing this article, and clients are often thrilled with the end results.

Large Premium WordPress Plugins

After my talk at WordCamp Belgrade last month I had several discussions with local power users and developers. One of them shared his concerns about the membership industry, and the available membership plugins in particular. The key comment though was:

How would I know whether this will work for my site if I don’t try it out first?

Some of these plugins cost hundreds of dollars. Which is fine if that’s what you need, and you’re certain that it would do the work.

But paying thousands of dollars for all of the available membership plugins in order to identify the right fit for your project is just wasting money. It’s hardly a reasonable investment. Not to mention the trial and error phase of trying to make each of them work for your case, and failing after a few days.

That’s not the only group of plugins that require that due diligence. What about form builders? Gallery plugins? There are plenty of solutions out there that would theoretically work, but would they work for your case?

Test Drive Is Not Too Popular

What really freaks me out is when users download themes from torrents and other warez websites. Most of those pirated versions are actually injected with plenty of vulnerable scripts that would bring down their website or server, or even steal sensitive data.

It’s simply a no-no.

Sandbox for Toolset
Sandbox for Toolset


But what’s their alternative? Buying a hundred themes and trying to make at least one of them work on their website?

Admin screenshots provided on ThemeForest and other theme shops are not necessarily helpful. The lack or availability of an option doesn’t mean that it would work properly.

Some potential problems here are:

  • How would the media be interpret if the ratio is different than the recommended?
  • What would happen with some custom copy on specific resolutions?
  • What happens if I swap two blocks of data on the landing page?

However, giving away free themes hoping that customers would pay for them is risky. Pippin did that with Affiliate WP and it was a good move, but the target audience there was a bit different. Most licensing extensions and other API key trackers could be disabled with a line of two of code, since we’re open source.

One of my favorite CMS related websites is OpenSource CMS. They provide demo websites for their visitors where users can play with the admin, enter some copy, try the core features and see how it works. This is a great way to provide access to your code base without giving away the code.

We have implemented that approach for two of the themes that we were selling 5 years ago, and customers were thrilled. Some plugin vendors also provide demo sites for their users – a sandbox.

While this is not a 100% complete solution that guarantees that a plugin or a theme will play well with the rest of your environment, it’s a great way to showcase your work and give a limited trial to your users without asking for initial investment that may not be a good fit for them. It’s way better than “30-day money back guarantee” or anything else on the market.

So my advice to all theme and plugin authors is: set up a demo server with your theme or plugin and let your prospects play with it. Wipe out the data on a daily basis, or add some limitations so that your demo doesn’t get hacked. But let them spend some time with your product, decide whether it’s a good fit and become happy customers paying for a product that they need, and will solve their problems.

8 thoughts on “Test Drive For Plugins and Themes is Not Popular Enough”

  1. Ahmad Awais says: May 11, 2015 at 9:12 pm

    While I agree with you on this topic, there should be a standard way of doing just that, I mean creating a real time demo ain’t that hard.

  2. slaFFik says: May 13, 2015 at 1:01 pm

    https://ninjademo.com/ is just $200 per year.

  3. Mario Peshev says: May 13, 2015 at 1:10 pm

    Thanks for the link – I haven’t seen that before, and it looks like an incredible toolkit for plugin and theme authors. I’m fairly excited actually.

  4. Jan says: May 22, 2015 at 7:38 pm

    I’m a bit concerned on your remark regarding the limited security on the license models.
    One option that might work is to provide a free version to play around with and have them pay for updates. Either periodically or per update.
    What do you think?

  5. Mario Peshev says: May 23, 2015 at 10:54 pm

    Jan, from my experience most software solutions are designed in a way that cannot be “detached” or “limited” easily. With the right motivation and an hour of debugging everyone can drop the “limitations” of the free version.

    It’s a bit different with close software as people can’t edit it directly (except for the low level).

    Also, most plugins rarely introduce essential plugin updates that are worth paying for, especially for higher fees.

    The best models that I’ve seen working are freemium plugins + paid extensions, and one time payment + annual renewal fee (which has a higher conversion rate mostly for lower cost products).

    It depends on the context and the specific product, but a free version is normally either too limited feature-wise so that it doesn’t inspire users to purchase a pro version, or already includes all of the essential features. Finding the balance is hard 🙂

  6. Peter Cralen (@PeterCralen) says: July 5, 2015 at 8:20 pm

    Good points in your post. You covered exactly my troubles with themes and plugin.
    If plugin or theme fits my needs, I am more than happy to pay for that few hundreds of $. (more than price range of plugins and theme are now)
    Anyway you probably know that feelings if you recognize after few minutes, that you just wasted some money, bc. plugin or theme its somehow different, that picture what you had in head what it should be from demo and description. Even if its just few $ but it was waste of time and money.
    This is problem with majority of plugin or theme shops. (or at least for their paid users in this case)

  7. Mario Peshev says: July 6, 2015 at 6:33 pm

    Thanks for your comment Peter – it’s really a tough problem in our community, and there are several different reasons for that. Hopefully with time more and more developers will launch demos for their potential customers.

Your thoughts?