What Makes a WordPress Theme Premium?


About a week ago Smashing Magazine released an article covering 100 free WordPress themes. And just yesterday they released an article covering premium WordPress themes.

My questions to the reader is: what makes a WordPress theme premium?

Is it the Features?

What features does a theme have to have to be considered premium? What are you looking for that will immediately tell a premium theme apart from a non-premium theme?

Is it the Design?

Are premium themes designed any differently than their non-premium counterparts? What design elements does a premium theme have that others don’t?

Is it the Support?

Do premium themes offer more in terms of author support and upgrades?

Or Something Else…

Please weigh in on what you feel makes a WordPress theme premium.




  1. Keith (7 comments.) says:

    One of the most obvious differences that I have found between free and premium WordPress themes is that premium themes offer full documentation and support. Where as with most free WordPress themes you are basically on your own when it comes to modifying and / or customizing the theme to fit your specific needs.

  2. Simon (1 comments.) says:

    It seems as if many of the premium themes aren’t very “blog-like”. They seem to be more geared towards professional publishers. There doesn’t seem to be too many premium wordpress themes for bloggers.

  3. worddiva says:

    From a casual user perspective, premium themes to me are those that don’t simply LOOK like everyday ordinary blog themes. The design is much more intricate and sophisticated; sometimes they don’t even look like a blog at first glance.

  4. Zac Davis (1 comments.) says:

    Premium for me means, good support, great design, but not too many are geared towards blogger, like Simon said.

  5. Small Potato (19 comments.) says:

    So far, the term premium-themes does not translate to better quality across the board for all “premium themes”. It’s simply another term for paid-themes.

    Unless there’s some sort of standard, “premium-themes” will continue to mislead the users.

  6. Bloggero (4 comments.) says:

    So which is better? A premium theme or a custom theme??

  7. papa bear (2 comments.) says:

    one is a rip off and one is not. That’s basically what it boils down to.

    The only reason to pay for a theme is if you are the only one who will have the design. If you and 900000 other people paid for the same design, the theme is worthless as you have no unique identity on the web.

  8. papa bear (2 comments.) says:

    I should add ‘worthless as you have no unique identity on the web and yet you paid for it when a free theme would do the same thing for you.’ ;)

  9. Small Potato (19 comments.) says:

    @Bloggero – Customs, but they’re more expensive.

  10. Ronald Huereca (39 comments.) says:

    @Small Potato,
    Also depends who the designer is.

    So far there are a few premium themes I like, but I was just curious what the community thought of WordPress themes that are labeled as premium.

  11. sir jorge (4 comments.) says:

    only if you paid for it, that’s the only criteria

  12. ArmyCats says:

    Also, some premium themes don’t have “Designed by ******” in the footer while most normal, free themes have.

  13. William Tully (1 comments.) says:

    To say that premium themes are better documented and supported is complete crap. I’ve dealt with many free themes which have been well documented and the designers have been more than willing to help out on a technical issue.

    A custom theme is exactly that – a one-off. A premium theme is simply a theme you decided to pay for because it wasn’t offered as free… The degree of uniqueness entirely depends on the number of people who pay for it. Free templates you can easily customize to not look like the other thousand who downloaded it (I practice and recommend it), and premium themes should be treated the same.

    The true difference between a premium theme and a free one is whether or not the designer can actually get someone to pay them for it, or not.

    Want unique? Go custom. Don’t want your free theme to look like everyone else’s? Learn some basic CSS, FTP and have some fun in a program like Gimp or something – you’d be surprised at the changes you can make to a solid template.

  14. kite says:

    Price, and perhaps support. I’ve run into some very nice free themes whose creators are more than happy to help a user out, and I’ve run into free theme creators that say they will, but refuse to answer emails and only publish comments on their themes that kiss their behinds. Sadly, the latter is much more common than the former.

  15. Nathan Rice (18 comments.) says:

    The differences are, in my mind:

    1. Support. Yes, premium theme developers (myself included) are very dependent on the happiness of users. Therefore, we like to make it a point to answer every email, and address every concern brought up by the customer.

    2. Quality. Ideally, this would be true across the board. Premium themes should be of a higher quality than most standard “free themes”. Some ways to up the quality would be to include multiple layouts, theme options so the user can quickly get the theme configured, unique front page layout, etc.

    3. Features. Some examples would be “featured posts”, tabbed sections, flashy javascript features (sometimes), homepages that look less like a blog and more like a website homepage/portal. Basically, any features that extend WordPress past just a blogging platform to a free CMS. It’s surprising how far WordPress can be stretched by theme features.

    I actually wrote an article a while back explaining a good bit of this same thing.

  16. DB Ferguson (8 comments.) says:

    I think the problem is that for many run of the mill bloggers, such as myself, paying hundreds of dollars for a “premium” custom theme is just way out of their price range. I receive over 50K hits per month, and still don’t make enough with my minimalist ads approach to afford a paid theme. Only a very small percentage of bloggers can afford the $500+ price tag that a nice, custom “premium” themes would cost that would differentiate them from other bloggers in general.

    However, I think the trick is not to necessarily look better than any other blogger out there, but to stand out from the blogs in your niche. For example, while my template is a free template (a highly customized hybrid of two very popular themes), I think that my blog is one of the cleanest and most functional blogs in my niche. I may not win any design awards, but the people who visit my site can get a very clear understanding of what the site is about and can easily navigate through the site with the categorized sidebar. And, compared to other blogs in my niche (including the official site of the featured celebrity), my layout is more than just adequate, it is one of the best out there.

    That being said, I have found that it is quite easy to take elements from “premium” blogs that help the functionality and look of them, and add those elements to free themes. For example, I loved the functionality of the left sidebar of the New York Times, so I added a categorized list like that in my blog. It isn’t quite as shiny and clean as the New York Times, but it is an adequate alternative and serves its purpose. I loved the color scheme of the “Revolution” paid theme by Brian Gardner, but wasn’t happy with the functionality. So I waited patiently, and sure enough, a blogger came along and built a free template with 80% of what I really wanted in color and design.

  17. hso (8 comments.) says:

    The design in conjunction with the built-in functionality separates a premium theme from a free one. The sheer amount of work that goes into creating premium themes alone is worth the money you pay. If someone thinks it worthless only because it is not exclusive should shell a good $4000 and get a theme designed from scratch.

  18. Dem (2 comments.) says:

    Well. That’s becoming a big problem now. I think that every designer or/and developer will sell his own themes. When he starts to sell themes, THOSE themes are becoming premium. PREMIUM doesn’t means that they are more pretty, or better code inside, etc…. PREMIUM means that people will pay for use it.

    I designed my own site, it has features, it has things but i’m not selling it so…. it’s not a premium theme…

    That’s my opinion.

  19. Jeff (27 comments.) says:

    “Premium” is just marketing-speak for “You Have to Pay for it”. I’m sure they trend classier than free themes, but I’m also sure there’s plenty of authors of beautiful free themes that offer support.

  20. Bill (6 comments.) says:

    I looked for quite some time for a theme that I could use on my blog. For me the theme was about features that were built in and ready to use. I finally settled on a theme that had the RSS build in, the Social Networking built in, colors, sidebars, widgets. In fact I was surprised when looking at all of the features that there wasn’t a charge.
    The theme I chose is not a standard WP theme but the author did build in hooks that let me do ads where I want, CSS if I want, etc…

    Premium to me means features and you don’t necessarily have to pay to get them… just look around.

  21. Bill (6 comments.) says:

    Small Potato:
    For me it is the customization that should make a “premium” theme. I would be willing to pay for customizations and at that point since money changed hands I would call it premium.

  22. Jenny (28 comments.) says:

    I don’t think anything makes a theme premium. I think it’s just the theme author feeding their ego by charging for a theme they think is special. And since everyone is making the same damn theme all over the place, there’s nothing special about it.

  23. Miriam (6 comments.) says:

    I haven’t looked at the innards of any of these premium themes yet, but it seems to me that they provide a lot of features and good structure, which enable you to take your blog design to the next level. Assuming that the structure is good, you can take one of these premium designs and create a fully customized design by changing and adding design elements, and moving stuff around.

  24. Monika (40 comments.) says:

    I’m using a ftp software which is free and you can pay for it- if you pay for it you are a “premium” user with support.

    weblogtoolscollection makes money with ads – because it is in the dashboard of every wp- so the traffic is high enough – webdesigner try to make money with *premium themes* .

    If a webdesigner offers *premium* themes he has no *user* he has *costumers* and that is a very big different.

    Often users kill all information about the webdesigner -so why a webdesigner should offer only themes for free?

    It is the same at -if someone would have *more* he has to pay.


  25. Jeffro2pt0 (164 comments.) says:

    If you ask me, any theme that you have to pay for automatically gets branded as PREMIUM. Thats just my take on the matter.

  26. danny (5 comments.) says:

    In my view, a theme should be opensource to start with. What makes it premium would be support.

    Support will be the product

  27. Mosey says:

    In my little book, premium themes are in effect themes that one has to pay for. There is more incentive for the developer of a premium/paid theme to provide GOOD support (if any) whereas this may not be the case for theme developers who offer them for free, but in my very limited experience, most seem to anyway, which is great for the crowd (like the far less talented me who can mod a theme a bit but not build one up from scratch due to lack of time/inspiration). I guess premium themes don’t have to have the link back either at the footer.

  28. chris (1 comments.) says:

    its the features. I would say

  29. Monika (40 comments.) says:

    Hi Mosey

    you have said:
    I guess premium themes don’t have to have the link back either at the footer.

    This can be, but most of the time you have to pay before you are alowed to delete this link.

    This is *traditon* so I know – I know about this rules since 1996 – and I do the same. If a customer would not like to give me credit via a link he has to pay for this.


  30. Andrew (31 comments.) says:

    I tend to think of premium as the cost for a particular benefit. In investments a risk premium is the expectation of a higher return as a result of higher risk.

    So I would think a premium theme should be one that provides additional benefits that are directly attributable to the extra cost involved.

    There is a reasonable question with this approach though: if someone is not prepared to give a theme a way for free, and labels it a premium theme, how much of the cost is the feature-premium, and how much of the cost is their idea of fair compensation for the base product?

  31. Monika says:

    Andres and why it this a reasonable question?

    Do you know how much of the costs for your car is for technical or for the designer and so on.

    If someone offers premium Themes and he find customers they are willing to pay for this- so it is a premium theme. If special effects or not.


  32. Ben Cope (1 comments.) says:

    Not all WordPress themes are created equal!! Sure, there are some free wordpress themes that are every bit as professional as the “premium” themes, but what makes a premium theme worth the money someone pays for it is 1) the level of support they receive and 2) the added features and functionality. A premium wordpress theme shouldn’t be defined as “premium” just because you have to pay for it … it should also include exceptional customer service!

  33. Thomas Clausen (3 comments.) says:

    I bought the Premium News Theme recently, and I’ve been very happy about it, even though I had to pay up :-)

    And the premium list looks very interesting, especially Mimbo Pro will be having my attention.

  34. Doug Smith (17 comments.) says:

    “Premium” is nothing more than a marketing term. There are both good and poor quality themes, supported and poorly supported themes, and themes with and without extra features that have been labeled “premium”.

    It’s like Idaho potatoes and Wisconsin cheese, which came from advertising campaigns. It’s like the same old UHF TV antenna designs now being labeled “digital” or “high definition”. It’s like THX certified speaker wire (Come on Monster, it’s just wire.) It’s like so many cheap consumer products labeled “professional”.

    The bottom line is that it’s all about making something have a higher perceived value so it will sell. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing if done honestly.

  35. Mike (6 comments.) says:

    Premium themes should (and I say should, because not all of them do) look much better than free ones.

    The catch is, that while you pay for a more pretty design, feature wise you can get a free theme that’s on par with a paid one.

    As Doug Smith suggested, premium is indeed nothing more than a marketing term. Keeping in mind that even if you pay for it, it is still a theme after all and not unique to your site.

    You can get a standard theme that can be modified to turn it into a real professional and unique looking one.

  36. Mike (6 comments.) says:

    Also, I’ve been looking at premium themes and I’m really not that impressed. I’ve seen some free ones that look much nicer.

    The other thing that Smashing Magazine quoted Kyle Scove on, is that premium themes ‘gives WordPress users a chance to stand out from the crowd of free themes’.

    Lets face it, when a bunch of people buy premium themes, it’s not exactly standing out. Like the proverbial saying, “You’re unique. Just like everyone else.”

    The only way you can really stand out is to create your own theme or modify an existing one, adding your own creative touch. Now I better do what I preach and work on my new theme. :P

  37. Jermayn Parker (2 comments.) says:

    IT should be all of those features that were original listed. The them should be full of features and allow the owner not having to install his own features. Design and code should be fool and error proof.

    If you look at the word Premium, it will explain exactly what a premium theme should be. Premium above the rest.

  38. Chris says:

    To me a premium theme is one that harnesses WordPress as an all-around CMS rather than just as a blog platform.

  39. Ronald Huereca (39 comments.) says:

    Thank you everyone for weighing in. The mixture of responses here just goes to show that even the WP community cannot agree as to what premium is with regards to themes.

  40. Christina Warren (4 comments.) says:

    I’d say ideally a premium theme should be perfectly coded (no validation errors, looks virtually the same across browsers, or at least doesn’t have any display problems), has lots of features and that support is offered. Design, ultimately, is inconsequential as I find it to be not only totally subjective, but often with little bearing on how well something is actually coded (plus, just my opinion, but there are TONS of free themes that look way better than all those premium news style themes that just look like Grid rip-offs — sorry, aesthetically, that is my opinion). How well various premium theme authors live up to that idea is impossible to know, and at this stage I don’t think the community has figured out an adequate way to rate or rank premium themes. Personally, I also think that the whole “value” shouldn’t be oversold – people thinking that “support” means that they will get customized work should be corrected — by support, I mean that if you pay for a theme, it should be a given that your e-mail gets a response. Of course, there are tons of free theme authors who do that anyway (and in some cases probably better than people who are charging), but I would definitely say that a basic response should be an expectation. Still, I think that it is important to distinguish between not only a premium theme and a custom theme, not only in terms of originality – but also in terms of support and upkeep. If I pay you $5000 to design my site, I expect you to fix my site as soon as elements stop working, or if WordPress updates and breaks something. If I pay $100 for the convenience of not coding the CSS myself, I should expect a responses to my e-mails, but not hands-on fixing or up-to-the-minute updates.

  41. Matt (2 comments.) says:

    I like to idea of having premium themes available. Usually with premium type themes, you get full documentation, source image files, etc. etc. etc. There are lots and lots of free WordPress themes out there, but as a general statement, most look the same and are built for a blog site only. Most of those offer minimal to zero support as well. Premium themes (like wpremix for example) offer a person a way to easily extend their site to meet many other needs without having to do too much with with HTML, CSS, and PHP.

  42. Monika says:


    100Dollars – and you would like to have 100% full support. ;)

    I have to pay for my energy, for my food, for my clothes and for my rental.

    I haven’t enough sparetime to do this and to work for 2cents per hour I cannot earn enough money to pay my rental.

    I’ll spent my sparetime for support at a wp team, but for one customer who has paid 100Dollars for one theme – this is unreal -for me.


  43. Christina Warren (4 comments.) says:

    Um, exactly – I never said that I would want your full support for $100 — I said that that $100 should guarantee at least a response to an e-mail (even if that response is, “I cannot code this for you myself”) but that the value of said support shouldn’t be oversold, otherwise people will be expecting that.

    We’re saying the same thing. Now, if I pay someone $5000 for a custom theme, I think that would entitle me to a certain amount of support and maintenance – but that’s not what a premium theme is. My point is that premium theme authors need to be sure they are being clear about what services they DO offer because lots of people will go in thinking they are getting something more than they are.

    • Trevor Green (1 comments.) says:

      As many have stated the term “premium” is arbitrary marketing speak, use for lack of a better term.

      What I’m interesting in is the expectations of support.

      I find the expectation that a “free” theme designer offers any support to the users of his themes upsetting. While I use free themes as a base and appreciate their availability, I would never presume to expect that a person do anything for free. We all have families to feed.

      That being said, if a person that is getting started and offers a free product and support as a gateway to acquiring work, That is just good business. You would hope that the person would then find paying customers and no longer allocate time to free projects as anything more than a hobby.

      As for premium theme designers continuing to offer support. This should only be expected at volume, and likely not even then. If I release a competitively priced theme at $20 for the theme, that pays for about 15 mins of my time. (Not because I take home much, but because businesses have overhead). To expect that I then have time to answer any emails or provide support is borderline insane. Does this work at scale, of course. If you can sell thousands of themes or subscriptions than you can afford staff, but for the bulk of “designers” this should not be the expectation.

      Since there is a glut of themes on the market, my approach is not to create and market new themes, but to provide service and customizations based upon the available themes. Often this generates as much labor revenue as creating a theme. It all depends on the clients ability to choose a theme that they are going to be happy with in its natural state, usually not the case.

      Ultimately the problem in choosing a theme, is not whether you have to pay for it or not. It is, how far does this theme get me toward my end goal, and what are my total costs to get there vs. the revenue obtained.

      One last comment, theme purchases are not for the technically savvy. They are for people who are purchasing a solution and have an actual budget to do so. If they can purchase the features they need instead of building them in themselves it’s a win. I may be comfortable spending 20 hours to get my theme right from scratch, but my clients would rather spend $20 + $500 in customizations. So there is certainly fair value in premium (paid) themes when you consider it from a budgetary perspective.

  44. Andreas Viklund (19 comments.) says:

    “Premium” is a common and overused word that implies “added value” and “higher quality” – but in many cases the real meaning is rather “exclusive and costly”. The same goes for website templates, where commercial templates are often called “premium” just because they are commercial – even though there are many free templates that are way better in terms of value and quality.

    I have never been into “premium” themes for WordPress since all my themes are free – including as much free support as there is time for in my everyday life. I want my work to be as useful as possible for as many people as possible, and the typical definition “premium” themes can by definition not fit into that philosophy since they will always reach out to fewer users.

    But I have got many offers, requests and suggestions about providing an exclusive range of themes so there is definitely a big interest for it that I can’t ignore. However, I will take on another approach than most “premium” theme designers are doing today. I have created an interesting concept, a kind of “added value” feature that nobody has offered yet and that I think could become interesting to many theme designers in the future. The concept will keep the theme itself free (and thereby available to everyone at all times), but theme users who want added value will be able to buy it as an additional feature – in several shapes. There will be several levels of added value, not just “premium” or “free” as most themes are today. And there will be virtually no waiting time while still keeping a guarantee that the “premium” part will be unique at all times. I’m not talking about custom design or custom coding, neither of advanced support or consulting. This is outside the box, while still completely simple. :)

    I will try to get it all launched before the end of this month. Anyone who is interested in knowing more can send me an e-mail and I’ll tell you more. I’ve build my entire daytime job on giving away things for free, and I’d be happy to give away my secret business plans for free as well if it can help other people and give the theme design community new ideas…

  45. Dave Coveney (2 comments.) says:

    After building lots of custom themes for clients we released our first GPL WordPress theme back in December, and will be releasing a premium theme in the very near future.

    But we can’t simply say “This premium costs money and therefore you have to pay for it.” Like buying a DVD player – there’s more to it than that – for example, if it’s confusing to use you may expected support from the makers. So there has to be some sort of ongoing support. Bug tracking, a forum for assistance (which can be both official and community) and so on. So once the launch comes round, people who pay for the theme will receive a license and access to forums.

    But the theme also has to be special. It has to offer so much more than what we do with GPL because ultimately it has to compete with ‘free’. And that’s quite something. Going back to my DVD analogy – if all basic DVD players were free, then selling one costing even $50 would be quite hard to do. It may even be worth building $200 or $400 DVD players instead, to differentiate better from the really cheap stuff. And it better look good when the neighbours come round to check it out!

  46. super rats (2 comments.) says:

    It’s not like there aren’t thousands of free themes available. I bought my first premium theme last week. I wish installation (as in getting everything as I wanted) was a little smoother than it was, but the developer was quick to respond with support and I found the code and style sheet structured in a way that was easy for me to follow. So I thought it was a worthwhile purchase. If I wanted to do something similar, billing myself at minimum wage, the css alone would have cost me more than $50 since I’m only proficient enough to follow and edit the css.

    The look of the theme was what made me go for it. I’d been very casually looking (checking out the theme posts on this blog) for about four months for a new theme. The premium theme I bought struck me as different from the free themes I’d seen and did something with the header I had wished other themes did. Even if it required tweaking for my personal taste (font size, text contrast, post data, etc.), it was worth $49 to get the theme files.

    It definitely helps if premium theme builders have good free themes available, so that we can test drive their free themes as a way to preview the potential quality of the premium theme. In the end though, the market would decide. Different folks have different priorities as far as themes go. If the premium theme doesn’t offer something better or different than a free one, who among those willing to go the premium route will buy it anyway? Given the quality of some free themes, I think any developer who wants to be successful with premium themes will have to create a very good case.

  47. Olegs (1 comments.) says:

    I would call a theme premium if it is unique and not just another public and free theme.

  48. Fun Blog (1 comments.) says:

    From my point of view, its the design that makes a theme premium – thats what i like to pay money for…

  49. Mosey says:

    I will be hotly anticipating (like many others I’m sure) the release of Andreax Viklund’s new system at the end of this month :)

  50. Alfred (1 comments.) says:

    Premium just means the author wants for letting you use the theme.
    If I was ready to pay for a theme, I’d rather go for a simple custom theme.
    Otherwise just use a free theme and customise it as per your needs.
    I remember my first theme was Pride by Small Potato, had never seen a line of php code before and he did help with questions on his forums.
    So Premium doesnt have to mean you pay for support either.

    Premium is just a word that the author will use to charge for either letting u use it or for offering support.

  51. skeezix says:

    If a theme has something in it that, for some reason, I would pay for, then that theme is “premium” for me. Examples of what I would pay for would be extras such as polls or calendars or whatever that I could turn on and off without boogering the rest of the design. Calling something “premium” because “it works” or “it’s not buggy” is just a buncha hocka pocka. Just my 2 cents (or should that be 2 bucks)worth…

  52. Jonathan (1 comments.) says:

    It is, to me at least a theme that pushes the bar just that much higher. It doesn’t matter if it costs you nothing or a big chunk of cash – if it solves a problem, and does it better than anything else you’ve seen… well then, that is a “Premium”

  53. Michael (2 comments.) says:

    As a designer it is essential to use a good wordpress themes for the world to see. Personally I love those themes that are easy to use, has a great back-end and I can easily customize them to match my main website if need be or turn it into the main display site. You can get all the Premium WordPress Themes here


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