Lessons Learned from Building and Supporting a (Fairly) Popular WordPress Theme

Around five months ago, I released Expound – a free magazine theme for WordPress. A few days ago, Expound has passed 100,000 downloads in the WordPress.org themes directory, which I’m super proud of. I have collected some thoughts along the way, which you may find useful.

Planning

Planning is a pretty important step, and you realize that when it comes to supporting and updating your theme. I must admit that Expound is the first theme I actually did any planning with. One important thing to keep in mind is that as soon as your theme is out there, whatever you do has to be backwards compatible, which probably means that you can’t really make more changes to your theme, without risking to break a child theme or two.

Use your theme on your own site for a while, test it out with friends and family, collect as much feedback as you can before releasing the theme (betas don’t count). I spent over five months running the theme on WP Magazine before submitting it to WordPress.org. You can imagine how many changes the theme has gone through during those five months, including several name changes.

Make a child theme and try customizing your theme. Make sure your CSS selectors are not too confusing and easy to override without using !important too much. Have useful actions, filters and pluggable functions available for fine-tuning stuff (like a featured posts section).

Releasing the Theme

Remember those days when you had to wait a month or two for your first theme review on WordPress.org? That’s changed for good, so the review incentive seems to be working, though it is very uncommon to see the winners pick any theme that is not theirs, which is kind of sad for other authors, but as long as they keep the queues empty – I’m okay with that.

If you’ve never released a theme to WordPress.org before, it’s a good idea to review the guidelines before you get started, and pay extra attention to the footer credit link and licensing rules.

Support

This one is tricky. I find myself spending at least a couple hours a week on support. There were almost 300 support questions on WordPress.org, numerous tweets, e-mails, and even a phone call! It’s quite challenging to keep up with that volume, especially if you’re doing it on your own time. Some Expound users have to wait 2-3 weeks before getting a response, which is sad, and I’m working on changing that.

Once you’ve gone through a good number of support topics, make a list of the most frequently asked questions – having a predefined response, or a link ready can save quite a lot of time. Some of the most common requests for Expound were:

  • How to add a logo to the theme
  • How to change the color of the menu
  • How to select featured posts
  • How to change the footer text
  • Why is my featured posts section vertical and not horizontal
  • I want a slider (ugh!)

Have a link to the Child Themes Codex page ready at all times – I lost count of how many times I had to post that. A Custom CSS plugin recommendation and a link to a simple CSS tutorial will also help.

If people figure their problem out on their own, don’t forget to ask them to post their solution, it may help others struggling with the same issues.

Theme Options

Nope.

The “no theme options” approach has worked out pretty well for Expound so far. There were numerous requests for things that could have been added as options, but most of them were sorted out with some fairly simple CSS, others well… Sometimes you just have to say “no.”

Plugin Support

While most plugins tend to be theme-independent, I took an extra step to provide better support for some fairly popular plugins: BuddyPress, Jetpack’s Infinite Scroll and Featured Content modules, Yet Another Related Posts Plugin, WP-PageNavi and Disqus.

I don’t have any stats and can’t really say whether it was worth the (little) effort, but I’m happy to add support for more plugins upon request. In fact, BuddyPress, YARPP and Disqus were all requests by existing users.

What’s Next?

I don’t anticipate any big changes to Expound, and even if I think of something really cool, I’d rather release it as a separate theme to avoid breaking child themes and customizations.

I’ll keep supporting Expound for as long as I can. I’ll keep adding support for plugins upon request. I’ll keep fixing bugs when possible and most importantly, I’ll keep using it. And you can always contribute if you like.

29 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from Building and Supporting a (Fairly) Popular WordPress Theme

  1. That’s some really nice lessons Konstantin. Making a list of Frequently Asked Questions is really a good approach to keep check on support requests as well as at the same time makes users happy as they find solutions fast.

    I think that might be one of the reasons for lots of five star rating on your theme too. :)

    –Neeraj
    InkThemes

  2. Congrats Konstantin. That’s a great achievement! It’s a great looking theme and well deserved of all those downloads. My own theme has just gone over 22,000 so I know how exciting these milestones are. Congrats again! Good luck with the next 100,000. :-)

  3. Thank you for sharing, Konstantin. This is very interesting, especially the paragraphs on providing support. I do support on a daily basis for a commercial plugin and theme shop, so please forgive me being extra curious. ;)

    Some Expound users have to wait 2-3 weeks before getting a response[…]

    Have you ever though about commercializing support? If so, how would you approach it? If not, why not and how do you plan to cope with potentially increasing ticket numbers?

    The “no theme options” approach has worked out pretty well for Expound so far.

    Music in my ears. :) Would you say that not providing any theme options can actually keep the number of support threads lower than for a theme with many options?

    Thanks again for this post, loved reading it.

    • Hi Caspar! I have not thought about commercializing support, and it’s really not something I’m planning on doing. My main goal is to have a good free theme out there, and I’m happy to support it for free for as much as I can. Not sure for how much longer that can scale, but luckily I’m getting help from forum volunteers and other Expound users out there.

      Would you say that not providing any theme options can actually keep the number of support threads lower than for a theme with many options?

      I wouldn’t really say that, though if I had to code a new theme option for every feature request in the support forums, that would definitely be much more work than coming up with a good response I can reuse (or link to) in other threads.

  4. Hi Konstantin – congrats on getting this far!

    I’d like to know what incentives there are for you personally to do this. Surely the hours of support and maintenance is tough going – particularly as there is no formal payment (or is there?).

    I’ve been toying with the idea of creating a WordPress niche theme for Themeforest.net as I couldn’t see the point in spending so much time supporting a free theme? I know that sounds harsh, but it’s true I guess.

    Anyway, thanks, and good luck with the future.

    Joe

    • Thanks Joe! As I mentioned in another comment, my main goal is to contribute a free theme to the WordPress community, not make any money out of that. Surely I get beers from generous users sometimes, but a “thanks, your theme rocks” is just as good in my mind :)

  5. Thanks for an insightful post – these are all very good suggestions.

    Kudos to you for offering this theme for free, and providing support to boot!

  6. Yep, exactly what I went through with Responsive.

    Support for popular Themes is not easy, rewarding, but time consuming and very challenging as well.

    Congrats on 100K!

  7. Congrats on 100k+ nice milestone.

    I agree, it is sad that the incentive is used to elect their theme to the theme homepage. Can you give us any insight to the impact of the home page featured theme’s and the increase of downloads/support?

    Thoughts on making theme promotion, stats, support better on .org?

    • Thanks Matt! From the stats I’ve managed to gather, it looks like the download it at its highest during the first couple days on WordPress.org, when it’s still in the “New Themes” section on the home page, and then decreases every day. It really depends on the theme itself though, for example my previous theme Publish started at ~ 120 and dropped to a daily average of 30-40 downloads. Expound started at 700, dropped to 400 in a few days, and has been at around 700-800 daily downloads after being featured.

      It also depends quite a lot from the outside-of-WordPress.org activity, like being featured in a theme roundup on a large blog.

      Thoughts on making theme promotion, stats, support better on .org?

      Can’t really talk about promotion, haven’t done much other than a couple blog posts here and there :)

      I think an actual “users count” could be of great value to theme stats and ranking, because 100,000 downloads doesn’t really mean there’s 100,000 users, more like 20,000 I suppose. I think the meta team is working on something along those lines, or at least they’re aware of the need.

      Better support is tricky, but it all boils down to people. More volunteers = better support I guess. I mean, how else can you deal with that kind of volume (referring to theme support in general, not just Expound)..

  8. Hey mate. Just a heads up, but I would have liked to have been able to reply to your reply, but comments don’t seem to nest past 1 level.

    Great work anyway, keep it up :-)

  9. Congrats on the 100K Konstantin and for a solid theme too. Been following the theme ever since you released it, watched it grow and I even based StrapVert on it :).

    I totally agree and understand where you coming from on the support issue, its single most time consuming part of releasing a theme.

    I also agree regarding the incentive scheme – it can benefit a lot of other authors out there and I’m contemplating on actually nominating a theme that is not mine should I get a chance this time round.

  10. Are there any things you would recommend a new theme developer try to account for before a theme release, or maybe even something to think about in planning? Something one might not otherwise think of – someone planning on releasing their first theme to the public?

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