WordPress professionals are faced with many options when deciding which membership-based theme providers are worth their investment. It is important to know how frequent future releases are, what your actual cost will be over time and what kind of support you can expect. It is also important to know what types of themes you will be gaining access to. What I will provide in this article is information to help you compare the details of popular WordPress theme clubs, so that you can more easily determine which might be useful in your situation.
About WordPress Theme Clubs
There are dozens of companies that provide commercial WordPress themes on a membership basis. Let’s first discuss what it means to be a member of a theme club, who theme clubs are ideally suited for and what you generally get as a member of a theme club.
What are WordPress Theme Clubs?
Essentially, a theme club offers membership that you can purchase to gain access to a collection of professional-quality WordPress themes with support resources. Some providers call this arrangement a “club” while others simply call it a membership. Typically, a membership must be renewed either monthly or annually in order to maintain access to theme updates, new releases and support. Customers can continue to use themes already downloaded even after membership has ended.
There is also another type of “membership”. Some companies who sell themes individually also offer “all themes” packages that include future releases, updates and lifetime support. Basically, what they are offering is a lifetime membership with no recurring fees. For the purpose of this article, I will consider these providers as theme clubs, although they do not see themselves in this way and may not be as compelled to provide new releases at the same frequency as traditional clubs.
Who are Theme Clubs For?
Theme clubs are beneficial to those who produce many WordPress-powered websites. The idea is that you gain access to a useful, growing collection of themes for less than you would pay if you bought the themes individually. Freelance designers and developers are often members of WordPress theme clubs for the purpose of having an arsenal of themes to use for client projects. Other members are those who produce many sites for their own purposes. And, in some cases, it just makes sense to join when the cost of membership is not much greater than the two or three themes you were planning to buy individually.
What do Theme Clubs Provide?
The clubs featured in this article provide commercial WordPress themes. Also referred to as “premium” themes, these are professionally developed themes that often include advanced features. The discussion of what makes a commercial/premium theme “premium” is out of the scope of this article (for the discussion, read Why Premium WordPress Themes? on my website). Also provided is support via a forum (and sometimes a helpdesk system), documentation, new releases, updates to existing themes and layered PSD or PNG source graphics.
Different clubs provide different types of themes. Larger clubs usually offer a wide variety of themes while others may focus more on a niche such as business themes. It is important to look at the types of themes currently available from a provider because they are likely indicators of what you will be getting for new releases. Don’t assume that every club will provide the types of themes your client projects demand. If you design sites for all types of clients, you will probably want to join clubs that produce themes covering different niches.
Comparing Theme Club Details
Let’s start taking a look at the theme clubs themselves. While there are dozens out there, I am only including 11 in this article that meet my narrow criteria. The reason for this is quality. There are clubs that might not be worth looking at. Based on my findings, these clubs range from those that show promise to those that many consider to be exceptional. You should draw your own conclusions based on your specific needs. I am not a customer of any of these companies, so my research was done from a pre-sale perspective.
Criteria For This Comparison
The theme club operators in this article meet the following criteria with at least one of their plans/packages.
- Offers renewable membership or an “all themes” package that includes future releases.
- Provides customer support for at least the lifetime of membership.
- Membership includes theme updates to ensure compatibility with latest versions of WordPress.
- Provides documentation.
- Allows use on multiple websites (including client websites).
- Uses GPL or Split GPL license.
- Actively produces new themes.
- Currently provides 10 or more themes.
- Provides a live front-end demo of themes.
- Exhibits professional-quality design work.
- Includes layered graphic files (Photoshop PSD or Fireworks PNG)
- Branding in theme footers can be removed.
Comparing Apples to Apples
Many theme clubs offer a more expensive “developer” membership that includes layered PSD or PNG files. Since this article is written for designers and developers, all pricing, numbers and calculations in the table and charts below are for “developer” plans and packages. Free themes are excluded from calculations. Some memberships include non-WordPress themes which are also excluded from this analysis.
A Side-by-Side Comparison
This table shows details about companies and their themes, costs, features and methods of support. Sellers are ordered by the number of paid themes that they currently provide.
When WordPress themes were first made available by the provider.
A six month average from September, 2010 through February, 2011. It does not include free themes.
Min. Price for All
The lowest price you would pay for all themes (with source PSD or PNG files) if you joined, downloaded all themes and then canceled before the first renewal date.
Min. Cost Each
Min. Price for All divided by Paid Themes.
Means whether or not the club includes a theme framework that utilizes child themes.
Indicates that support is provided even after membership has ended.
Data current as of March 25, 2011. Monthly Releases considers paid themes released between September 1, 2010 and February 28, 2011. Pricing and support is for “developer” plans with multiple use licenses and layered graphics files.
A Note About Code
I was originally going to include a row in this table to show which providers use W3C valid XHTML/CSS code. Nearly every provider claimed that this was the case. However, the reality is that many themes don’t fully validate because they often use CSS3, Flash, third-party code (especially social media) and other reasonable bits of Web goodness that cause validation issues. A better claim for some providers may be that they strive to produce valid code whenever reasonably possible.
Regarding server-side code: not being a member of these themes clubs, I can’t draw any conclusions about the quality of their PHP code (organization, best practices, commenting etc). But maybe that’s a good topic for another study.
How Many And How Much
If you are visually-oriented like I am, then it might be beneficial to see the data presented in charts.
Number of Themes Now and To Be Expected
It is clear that some theme producers are just starting out while others are more established. It is important to be aware of how many themes you are getting access to when you first sign up. A large collection of themes is useful. It is also evidence of how hard the company has been working for its members from the beginning (consider the age of each company).
The total number of paid (non-free) WordPress themes in each provider’s collection as of March 25, 2011.
Something that is not immediately apparent by visiting theme club websites is how many themes they release each month. I don’t mean how many themes they tell you they will be releasing, but how many themes they have actually been releasing on a regular basis. The proof is in the pudding.
The average monthly paid WordPress theme releases from September 1, 2010 to February 28, 2011.
Assessing the Actual Cost
Most theme clubs require a one-time joining fee plus either a monthly or annual renewal fee. The chart below shows the actual cost of being a “developer” member for the first year. Theme clubs with a larger selection understandably cost more. However, there are exceptions such as Elegant Themes.
Also worth noting are StudioPress and Organic Themes which do not have recurring fees, so their costs will prove dramatically less than most others after a couple years. Cost should not be the sole determining factor, however. A good deal has to include themes you will actually use.
The total cost of each provider’s “developer” membership after one year.
If you want to take the “smash and grab” approach and are not necessarily interested in future releases or support, you can join and download all themes and then cancel before your renewal is due. This is a way to create your own one-time fee “all themes pack”. Look again at the table above to see which companies will provide you with lifetime support. The chart below shows the cost per theme you can expect when doing this.
The actual cost per WordPress theme from each provider when signing up, downloading all themes, then canceling before renewal.
A Closer Look At Each Theme Club
Much can be said about each theme club. Let’s take a more individualized look at what is offered by each provider.
WooThemes: Consistent Deliverer
WooThemes started in 2008 and has established itself as the largest club in terms of number of themes available. Their Developer Club Subscription costs $200 to start plus $20 per month. They provide support via their forum and have produced a wide range of resources including documentation for each theme plus tutorials and videos. WooThemes has been successful at engaging their community of customers with an active blog, job board, busy forums and even comic strips.
- They promise two new themes monthly. Over the last six months, they have averaged 2 releases per month, excluding free themes. This says a lot about their commitment to provide for their members.
- WooThemes supports customers who have cancelled their subscriptions.
- They produce a wide variety of themes (33 niches according to ThemeSorter).
- Their Playground lets you experience the back-end of every theme.
One complaint is that WooThemes is expensive. However, I believe that the cost of their developer club is proportional to what it provides. They have the largest collection and release the most themes per month. They actually have the second-lowest minimum cost per theme of all sellers in this group.
Elegant Themes: Affordable Quality
Elegant Themes started in 2008 and has developed a reputation of being one of the more prolific theme producers. They are known for their low cost and high quality. The cost is a mere $39/year plus a one-time fee of $89 if you plan on using their themes for client websites.
- Affordability. They offer the most themes for the lowest yearly renewal fee.
- The quality of themes is much better than many would expect for the price paid.
- They averaged a healthy 1.7 new releases per month over the last six months.
- Elegant Themes provides a respectable variety of themes including not only blog, magazine/news and business themes but also portfolio themes and niche themes for real estate, events, product showcasing and more.
- They offer a 30-day money back guarantee.
The standard license allows for multiple use but only on your own sites. In order to create sites for clients, you must pay a one-time $89 fee for a developer license. This is still a great deal but unless you read the fine print, this is easy to miss. It also cannot be paid for at the time of sign-up (members pay for it as an upgrade). I don’t consider this to be a major concern, just something to be aware of before joining.
Templatic: Robust Variety
Templatic is an India-based company that produces a wide variety of WordPress themes. Especially notable are their full-featured e-commerce themes. With over 50 themes and more than one new release each month, they are one of the largest and fastest growing providers. Their club may be a good solution for those needing many different types of themes for client projects. Club membership is $299 plus $15 per month.
- Large variety of nice-looking themes. I was able to classify their themes into several dozen niches.
- They offer several full-blown e-commerce themes complete with shopping carts and online payment handling.
- They offer individual support via their helpdesk in addition to forum support.
- They continue to provide support after cancellation.
- Members have been told to expect two new releases monthly. However, from September, 2010 through February, 2011, they have averaged 1.2 new releases per month. Even when counting free themes, they have not met their own expectation. Still, they are releasing a useful amount of new themes regularly.
- The English used on parts of their website and theme demos is sometimes awkward which can come across as unprofessional.
StudioPress: Unlimited Everything
StudioPress is not technically a theme club. They are included in this group of providers because their Pro Plus All-Themes package ($249.95) includes all current and future theme releases plus lifetime support. This is in effect a membership without recurring fees. The simplicity of their “Unlimited Everything” philosophy is refreshing. They offer many business, gallery/portfolio and women’s interest themes produced by both StudioPress and talented collaborators.
- No recurring fees.
- Lifetime support, updates and future releases.
- They have averaged 1.3 new releases per month during the last six months.
- Their popular Genesis Framework is included. This is a great tool for developers and more savvy WordPress users.
- StudioPress has a 30-day refund policy.
- Their selection of themes geared toward women is commendable.
NattyWP: Fading Away?
NattyWP has been around since 2008 and currently offers 28 premium themes plus future releases for their members. The cost is $300 per year. They have a selection of the most popular types of WordPress themes: magazine/news, business, portfolio and blog.
- They offer support via a helpdesk. Most clubs do not provide this type of private/individual support.
- Members continue to receive support after cancellation.
- Their offerings cover the most common needs.
They have released only two new themes during the last six months (their frequency of releases was greater in the past). Their website looks the same as it did in 2008 and their forum seems to be inactive, so you have to wonder how much their heart is still in it.
WPZOOM: Second Wind
WPZOOM redesigned their website very recently and with that introduced a membership option. They have averaged one new release per month over the last six months while selling themes individually. At the time they introduced their new theme club, they commented that they would be releasing one to three new themes per month. It sounds like they might be stepping it up a notch which would be a great benefit to new members. WPZOOM’s specialty over the last couple years has been magazine/news and portfolio themes.
The cost of their developer club is $299 for the first month then $19/month thereafter.
- A dream for frequent magazine/news theme users.
- WPZOOM provides lifetime support even after a member cancels.
Developer club pricing is higher than other providers who offer more themes. I hope to see WPZOOM expand both the size and variety of their offerings for their new members.
Obox: Solid Offerings
Obox had its beginning as a web development company run by brothers David and Marc Perel. Two years ago they turned their attention to theme design and have built up a collection of 24 premium WordPress themes (more for Tumblr and Posterous). Their membership costs $125 to start then $15/month to maintain. You can expect about one new WordPress theme release per month. Their offerings are mostly made up of blog themes with a dash of magazine-style inspiration. Business and portfolio/gallery themes are also part of the collection.
- A reputation for excellent support.
- High quality design work.
- The OCMX plugin is included and may be of interest to developers.
The first thing that struck me about RocketTheme when looking at their demos was the customization options that many of their WordPress themes provide. While most themes from other sellers come with several color schemes or styles, many of RocketTheme’s themes include user-friendly tools that let you create your own custom styles (go to the Crystalline demo and click “COLOR CHOOSER“ at the top-right).
The cost is $250 to start your RocketTheme membership then $200 each year for renewal. You will gain access to their collection which is mostly made up of themes for business, blog and magazine/news sites. Note that RocketTheme offers separate memberships for WordPress and Joomla.
- Impressive customization options included with many themes.
- They have consistently delivered on their promise to release one new theme per month since they started selling WordPress themes in 2009.
- Their design style is unique and flashy.
- Many features are included with their themes, especially newer releases.
Themify: Fast Start
Themify is a relatively new WordPress theme provider. They opened their doors last year and have 13 paid themes already. They are definitely one to watch. If they keep up their pace, they could end up as one of the leading clubs. Right now they have a small selection but manage to offer many different types of themes (such as microblogging, restaurant, news, business, portfolio). Variety is a good thing for a theme club and it looks like Themify realizes this and has made it a part of their growth plan.
The cost of their membership is $150 for the first month then $20 per month for renewal.
- They have been working fast with 1.2 releases per month on average since last summer.
- Clearly aiming to build a variety of themes to meet many needs.
The cost is a concern considering their small size at the moment. They will have to deliver a high number of regular releases to justify their $20/month renewal fee.
Organic Themes: Still Growing
Note: There is a “Buy All Themes” button on the top-right of their themes page. They do not have a page with details for their all-themes developer package. David Morgan of Organic Themes confirmed that this package “entitles the purchaser to current and future theme releases.”
Having launched in 2010, Organic Themes is another one of the newer WordPress theme providers. The company is based in a small Hawaiian town and run by David Morgan and Jeff Milone. The first thing to note about Organic Themes is that they sell an “all themes package” for developers. When you buy it, you get access to all of their current themes plus access to their future themes and support for as long as they are in business. This is in effect a one-time fee “membership”.
I don’t know if they plan to offer a formal membership with recurring fees when they are larger, but if they do (as WPZOOM just did), “all themes package” customers will probably feel very fortunate.
- All themes package is like a “membership” with no recurring fees.
- Lifetime new releases, updates and support at no extra cost.
- A clear focus on quality over quantity.
- If you look at Organic Themes as a theme club, their recent low rate of releases would be a concern. However, they are not technically a theme club and thus do not promise a specific number of new releases. It is better to look at them as what they are, a company generous enough to provide future releases and support to buyers of their all themes package.
- There is no pricing or details page that explains the terms of the all-themes developer package. They told me that making such a page is high on their priorities list.
UpThemes: Gearing Up
UpThemes opened its doors in 2010 and has produced 10 paid WordPress themes. They recently added a new team member so there is good reason to believe that they will be producing more frequent releases. As with Themify, it appears that UpThemes is focusing on producing multiple types of themes for their members. So far they provide solutions for gallery/portfolio, coming soon, app showcase, blogging, charity/non-profit, band/musician and e-commerce.
Their membership costs $159 for the first month then $19 per month to renew. This is a young theme club worth keeping an eye on.
- Members who cancel have lifetime support via the UpThemes forums.
- The variety of themes in their collection is very good even at this early stage of their existence.
The pricing page promises members one new theme each month. This has not been the case during the last six months even when considering free themes. It is possible that the promise was not made until very recently, however. We will have to see if the expectation is met during the next few months.
Developer theme clubs can be useful to freelance professionals and companies who build many WordPress-powered websites. We have learned that different clubs have different types of themes, collection sizes, release frequencies and costs. Combine this with the fact that you have your own specific requirements and it becomes clear that not every club is a guaranteed match for you. You should ask yourself a few questions when deciding which theme club or clubs to join — if any at all — in order to make the best use of your budget.
First, ask yourself if the club produces the type of themes that you will actually use. A club that offers many nice-looking themes for a low price may seem like a good deal. But is it a good deal for you? What if most of their themes are magazine/news themes but your clients are small businesses? You should also ask yourself if a club will save you money. You may not need as many themes as you are paying for. In this case, your budget may be better spent purchasing themes individually from multiple providers.
I hope this survey of likely choices will make it easier for you to decide if a WordPress theme club can help you with your work.
The following articles relating to premium WordPress themes and providers may be of interest to you:
- Why Premium WordPress Themes?
This explains what premium/commercial WordPress themes are and what they commonly include.
- Premium Themes: What’s Wrong With Pricing?
What to look for in a commercial WordPress theme provider.
- Theme Grade Provider Reviews
Detailed reviews of WordPress theme providers.
- How to find WordPress themes, quickly and easily
Outlines the different ways that WordPress themes can be found.
- Why WordPress Themes are Derivative of WordPress
This article explains in detail the whole issue of GPL licensing for WordPress themes.
- 100 Free High Quality WordPress Themes: 2010 Edition
A showcase of free high quality themes that can compliment any freelancer’s theme club subscription.