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Thesis 2.0 & The State of Premium Frameworks

At the start of the month, DIYThemes launched the latest version of their hugely successful theme framework, Thesis.

Due to Thesis’ closed-source licensing, outside the tight-knit Thesis community, it is, to be honest, a little bit of a taboo to talk, write about Thesis unless you’re giving it a hard time.

I’m not setting out here to give Thesis a hard time, but I am setting out to look at what the launch of the latest version of the framework says about premium WordPress themes at the moment, specifically premium “frameworks”.

I don’t use Thesis, and it’s unlikely I ever will, but I still took an interest in the launch and the new features etc. What I noticed was so… notable I felt it’s worth of a post here on Shout.

A little bit of background

I couldn’t actually find an exact date for when the last major version of Thesis was released, but as far as I can tell, it was roughly August 2010.

The new version was released on the 1st October 2012.

The various marketing materials have promised the latest version is a  “total re-write”, but even so, two years? That’s a hell of a long time, to go without a major upgrade.

At the very least, though, you would kinda expect something that’s taken this long to make is at least, you know, finished and complete. Maybe even well documented.

Sadly, as far as I can tell, on initial release, Thesis was none of these things.

Big release hype backfires

A lot of hype was made about 1st October being the “big release day”. People were — obviously — excited. They were rocking Windows 95 and had just been told they were going to get a free upgrade to Windows 8.

Sadly, release day came — and nearly went again — Thesis 2.0 was released at around 11.45pm. Not what you’d expect on the day of a release that’s been in the works for two years, right?

I didn’t stay up until then, by the way, I learned this from a blog post that went up on the DIY Themes site the next day. Have a read of the post; when I did, I was appalled.

“But as we expected, with such a major overhaul, and tons of people using the new software, we’ve stumbled on a few bugs.

And while we squash these bugs, we don’t recommend you switch over your old version of Thesis to Thesis 2.0 just yet.”

Okay, so there are some bugs. Fair enough.

The big point for me, though, was that despite the fact the new version was a “complete overhaul”, with all new menus etc, there, um, wasn’t any documentation on how to use any of it.

“Why release something like this with all the bugs”?

Reading through the comments, it became clear that Thesis 2.0 was unfinished and released just because a release had been promised, not because it was ready. Again, as far as I could tell, there was no beta testing, no documentation or tutorials and saying “hey, we released that new version like we said we would… just don’t use it yet!” isn’t exactly ideal.

But marketing saves the day

Thesis bashing complete, the point I’m getting to here is I very much doubt the launch will be considered the failure it kinda was.

I’ve seen these “all new features” before!

A lot of new features were introduced, just they were essentially playing catch-up with the rest of the market. “Drag and drop” theme design has been something Headway and Builder have been doing for years. SEO features? I’ll take Yoast’s plugin any day.

But if you’re clever about it and your marketing’s good, then, hey, it doesn’t matter.

And DIY Themes are damn good at their marketing.

It’s all about the hyperbole

Which finally brings me to the point I’m trying to make here.

I’ve noticed a distinct trend over the last couple of months of a distinct shift towards marketing and hyperbole from theme makers.

StudioPress joining Copyblogger Media has had great results for Brian and his team, but even Genesis hasn’t really seen any major new features added recently. The StudioPress site, however, is now packed full of marketing content designed to drive you to purchase.

And I have absolutely no complaints about that — clearly it’s working very well for StudioPress; Brian said on his blog:

“Brian Clark promised me that he’d double sales with StudioPress, and that happened in half the time he had expected. Our site traffic has tripled since then as well.”

My fear is that the constant innovation that’s propelled the WordPress theme marketplace forward in the last couple of years has stalled and that innovation has been replaced by snazzy marketing instead.

Innovation, please

But is this just the marketing side catch up with the innovation side? Or is there secret stuff going on behind the scenes everywhere that I’m missing?

iThemes haven’t been ones to “blow their own trumpet” with Builder.

Certainly, in DIY Themes’ case, I don’t think this is the case at all. Thesis 2.0 was playing catch up with the competition, but it’s been presented as groundbreaking. Has anyone really noticed? I’m not entirely sure they have.

But what about Genesis, Builder, Headway and the other frameworks?

I asked Cory MilleBrian Gardner and DIYThemes whether it was a fair accusation that innovation had been replaced with marketing. DIYThemes didn’t reply to my email and Brian declined to comment, but Cory said:

“We’ve believed since Jan. 2008 that our work should speak for itself. We take great pride in building software that our community wants and loves. The test is if we fulfill our mission of “making people’s lives awesome” and whether or not we’re deserving of attention.

Sadly though, because we don’t like to toot our own horn we get forgotten. There is a fine line between sharing what your product does with marketing messages and going over that line into hype. It’s just not who we are. The result is we’ll just keep probably getting overlooked in this sea of hype but stick to our core values and be in this for the long term.”

I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions from what Cory said, but “because we don’t like to toot our own horn we get forgotten” — that stings.

Let’s talk it out, folks

Had any other theme shop spent two years making a theme, released it and then immediately told people that they shouldn’t use it, but DIY Themes? They can get away with it, no sweat.

So was it just their marketing that allowed them to stay ahead in the WordPress framework market for so long? And is it just down to StudioPress’ Copyblogger-backed marketing that means they’ve taken the lead as the premier framework?

And more importantly, has this shift towards marketing left everyone else behind, or is this their biggest opportunity yet to come up with something genuinely different and better?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  • Hey Alex, thanks for including iThemes in this post and requesting a quote or two from me.

    As I mentioned, I don’t like to take shots at anyone (and didn’t intend that in my comments above) but prefer to talk about our work instead. Generally speaking, the web is filled with some hype that gives marketing a bad name. But marketing isn’t bad in itself.

    IMHO, marketing is the responsibility we have to communicate / educate / inform prospective customers how your product can make their lives better, easier, more awesome, etc.

    We all want others to talk objectively about our work (and in a positive, raving fan way) … and typically we try to let those in our customer community do that talking and tune out the rest.

    • Alex Denning

      Thanks for your contribution, Cory and I hope I didn’t imply anything that wasn’t intended from your comment.

      For the benefit of others, I was very impressed how when asked out of the blue on chat for a short quote Cory came back with that immediately and I do think it says a lot about how clear iThemes are in their vision and they’ve won an awful lot of respect from me for that.

      Re marketing — I’ve recently been playing around with a couple of little “marketing” bits here on WPShout and I’ve been amazed at the results (the email signup form on the homepage, say, has tripled email signups), so sure, it’s not something just to disregard, but it’s got to be combined with tangible progress and innovation.

  • The problem with the WordPress economy right now is the best marketing wins. Thesis is and always has been just good marketing. I also feel like DIYThemes is its own separate thing from WordPress. I feel like there is an opportunity to collaborate among frameworks and standardize things like theme hooks and separation of functionality and design. Instead, frameworks are continuously adding their own proprietary hooks and functionality that, I as a developer, are forced to either work with or work around.

    I’ll take iThemes and Woo any day over DIYThemes because they work with the community instead of against it.

    Basically I just want more innovation and COLLABORATION.

    • Jon, thanks for the kind comments about us ….

      So being transparent for a second for this discussion, I’ll say that the spirit of open source has opened my own mindset up a ton about collaboration, or even helping people who would otherwise be “competitors.” In my case, Grant and Clay of Headway Themes. Headway is what we see as a direct competitor to iThemes Builder but they are some of our best friends in business and in life. And we both respect each other’s work while preferring our own. We don’t talk trash about the other’s work. Try to steal each others ideas or custoers. We just say it’s awesome and we love ours. In fact, I know Clay and Chris have collaborated and discussed issues each has had.

      But needless to say, it doesn’t come natural. It’s learned and earned.

      The sad truth though honestly is … we’re all supremely protective and proud of our businesses. I’ve seen it happen over and over in business that collaboration is sometimes near impossible unless you carve out win-wins. (Then what happens is everybody goes home and realizes we’re too busy with our own projects, and yes, maybe protective of our time and platforms we’ve built and it fizzles out.)

      But I’ll say that within the group of my closest friends in WordPress (Lisa Sabin-Wilson, Brad Williams, Grant Griffiths, Jason Schuller, Jeff Milone, Carl Hancock, Jonathan Davis, Michael Torbert and others) that we’ve collaborated on many different levels, talk frequently, share best practices (and maybe an occasional gripe or two) and all love and respect what each has built. And of course, we are supremely passionate about WordPress.

      All to say … I believe collaboration is happening on some levels. :)

      • Thanks for taking the time to reply to my comment Corey!

        It’s nice to hear the business side of things to put the whole topic into perspective. It’s great that you guys can still come together and collaborate on any level let alone the level I see from shops like yours and a few others I’m partial towards. I think conversations like this are important and hopefully more people can approach these conversations with the same level of transparency you have.

  • Jason

    I’d say that this applies to the premium WordPress theme market in general these days (there is no innovation for the most part). Just throw in a slider here, some social buttons there, add some sort of “responsive” layout, hype it up and you’ll sell tons of themes. That’s not to say that there isn’t any innovation out there, but it’s very hard to find. To be honest, I don’t think customers are really looking for truly original work anyway which is sad. They just want the same recipe that you can find on every other site. With that in mind, I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with frameworks. On one hand they provide the power to crank out a decent website with solid code in record time, but on the other hand, the end result always looks pretty much the same.

    • Jason, fair enough … so what features do you see that the frameworks need to be innovating in particular?

      • Jason Schuller

        Hey my friend :) … my email got cut off in the above comment… I didn’t intend it to be “anonymous”.

        I think my comment was somewhat off topic. I was speaking more in the regard of what is produced with frameworks (the end result) as well as standalone themes in general. There seems to be a “recipe” that everyone is following these days in the creation of new premium WordPress themes. We follow that “recipe” because we know what customers want. But this is sad because in the process of trying to maintain a profitable business, true creativity is sometimes sacrificed. I really do believe this is the case with the premium WordPress theme marketplace these days. New “Good” themes are being released every single day, but there aren’t very many that are “Amazing” and truly unique in their own right.

        • hahah – yes, you’re spot on. It does seem like people cling to “recipes” versus a custom build out. And yes, you’re right … we’re focusing on going from just “good” to “great” in terms of our design, etc as well!

  • Sam

    I’d certainly have to agree with Jon in relation to the fact that, on the surface, best marketing seems to be winning. And a point in case was the release of the new Headway theme framework about a year ago now. They kept hyping up heir new release all thru last year and when it was finally released even the pest control companies would have had a hard time eliminating all the bugs that came with it. Even now they are continuing to release new minor updates to eliminate these.
    I agree with Cory that iThemes just goes along producing good theme frameworks and another group that I have used and feel is worthy of a mention is the Catalyst theme. They alos don’t engage in any real hyperbole but produce a good product.

  • FJTerry

    I don’t normally comment publicly about anything on the internet. This morning I was compelled to.

    One of the first things I did this morning was pop open a browser to review the various Twitter feeds of Thesis-related authors and contributors. Because that’s what I’ve been doing every day, not because I want to, but because I seemingly have to.

    I also fired up a news reader application in order to hopefully find something positive and productive about the progress, stability, usability, documentation, promises, etc. of Thesis.

    I have been doing the routine I describe for weeks, months, and years. Every day I spend my time, and money, hoping to find what should have been planned for, produced, and provided to me, and other paying customers, from day one with Thesis.

    Admittedly, I am sometimes a bit of a masochist and self deprecating. I like to learn, experiment, build things, break things, etc.

    However, this morning, again, … I open the Thesis author’, Chris Pearson’s, Twitter feed, to hopefully learn something positive, something describing the progress he’s made toward giving people what they’ve been promised, and have paid for, and instead, I find this, relating to this article and its author:

    pearsonified ?@pearsonified
    @mattonomics @carlhancock Critiques from a 19 year old non-journalist seeking attention. Free round of “who gives a shits” for everybody!

    That’s what Mr. Pearson is doing with his time, evidently… reading reviews about himself and his work, and egotistically taking the time to react and write, publicly, about it, in reckless response and disrespectful, attacking regard.

    I would very much appreciate, and prefer, Mr. Pearson, if Mr. Pearson would spend his time creating documentation for the product he has sold people and made promises thereto.

    Spend your time doing that, please!

    Every minute you spend reading reviews and comments about yourself, your clear fascinating with vanity and misguided superiority, is another minute people lose faith and belief in Thesis, and you. Seriously. That’s where I am this morning, with Thesis, and most-certainly, you, and those you surround yourself with.

    I read on to discover other Thesis contributors again, publicly, joining Chris, egging him on, and stroking his publicly-strong but clearly-privately-sensitive ego as follows:

    Matt Gross ?@mattonomics
    @carlhancock ok then the 85% about Thesis is bullshit. That kid has no clue what he’s talking about. 3yrs ago he was riding a bus to school.

    I am seriously appalled, confused, afraid, and embarrassed, for them, and for me, for allowing myself to become involved with, following, and participating in such a juvenile, disrespectful circus of filth.

    I am mostly upset and embarrassed with myself, for allowing myself, for days, weeks, months, and years, to think something would change with Thesis, and its hord.

    I don’t know what I was thinking. I guess I was hopeful. I guess I am naive at times. And as stated, I’m a bit the masochist and self-punishing at times.

    Sticking with Thesis and these disrespectful, juvenile, irresponsible, egotistical, self-inflated people, that created a product, based open an open-source project (WordPress), which would only have been possible with said open-source project, and then attempting to close-source it, ignore their customers, blast and denigrate honest reviews and reviewers, publicly, and generally … fail… feels… just… miserable… for everybody… involved.

    What caused me to respond today, considering I don’t generally ever respond/comment publicly on the internet? …

    … Chris Pearson’s own Twitter feed.

    I went to Mr. Pearson’s feed, first thing this morning, to hopefully learn about useable progress about the $200 product/service I had purchased and supported.

    Instead of documentation, announcements about taking care of business, messages helping customers feel better, I find the author spending more of his time slamming a young, insightful, honest reviewer and his critique of a situation I, and many others, instantly related to, as reality.

    This review hit me as pretty much dead on reality with regards to DiY Themes, Thesis, it’s author, and it’s companies. It opened my eyes that should have been open all along. Mr. Pearson and company’ public reactions and responses, validate the article is revealing, accurate, hit a nerve, and rings of chords of truth.

    Today is a great day; a liberating day. It’s a day and morning where I learned some new things about myself and others. Truth appeared this morning and has provided me the insight to move on to more positive, productive, and respectful endeavors.

    • Alex Denning

      Thank you for your comment and thank you for bringing Chris Pearson and Matt Gross’ tweets to my attention. For those interested, the series can be found:

      And a couple of quotes:

      “That kid has no clue what he’s talking about. 3yrs ago he was riding a bus to school.”

      “Critiques from a 19 year old non-journalist seeking attention. Free round of “who gives a shits” for everybody!”

      I didn’t want this post to turn into a debate about Thesis and until Chris and Matt responded with such juvenile behaviour, it wasn’t at all — it was a discussion about how the Premium Framework market has shifted recently, which is the point I was trying to make and the point I thought I’d made.

      As I mentioned in the post, I had offered DIYThemes the chance to respond before this was published, but sadly I heard nothing from them. I’m extremely disappointed they think this is the appropriate way to constructive criticism. I’ll respond to their specific accusations in an edit to the post.

  • Innovation should be defined. I don’t think innovation is purely tied to functionality. Refinement has to play a part in that process too, whether that be marketing, design, support or a combination of them.

    Marketing is necessary to inform potential customers about your product. It is an essential piece in any product development scheme. Ideally, the perfect marketing scheme removes completely the cognitive dissonance between the product sold and the product received, but nobody is perfect. I just always hope to err on the side of pleasant surprise instead of realized fear.

    And while we’re on innovation, I believe it’s an arms race. People don’t want innovation. People want something that solves their problems. And when problems begin to get solved, people begin to “innovate” towards those solutions. Whether innovation actually occurs in the entire process is debatable. ;-)

  • Peter

    I find the twitter comments by both Pearson and Gross to be particularly childish and insulting. Everything this reviewer says about T2.0 is true. Absolutely. Unequivocally.

    I know, because I’ve been trying to use a product with absolutely no official documentation.

  • Great piece!
    Thanks for sharing your views on the marketing hype and the subsequent storm DIYThemes has unleashed.

    “Fried air”, as some on this planet say.

  • I’m using Thesis 2 and it’s working great. DIYThemes have some dedicated smarties in the forums that will bend over backwards to help users. Your assessment of Thesis 2 is inaccurate. Like any other theme or software you have to learn how to use it. Most of the so called “bugs” are a result of operator error.

    Like Thesis or not. Like the developer or not. Thesis 2 is innovative. The support is exceptional.

    Guys like Pearson, Gardner, Miller and many others have helped WordPress advance far beyond what it would have without them.

    The market decides how much innovation is put into a product. Tell the developers what you want and I’ll bet they put it in their themes.

    Corey makes the point:
    “Jason, fair enough … so what features do you see that the frameworks need to be innovating in particular?”

    Want innovation? Just ask users what they want.

    Believe me, if these developers see that their themes can be improved by satisfying a users need, they’ll find a way to innovate.

    *Kudos to Pearson for developing a remarkable WordPress theme.

    • Operator error? Really? When you say that Thesis 2 doesn’t have any bugs, it makes me wonder if you are really using it. Take it from me, I’m using it, Spend a couple of hours tweaking your skin on your dev install and then try to export it to your live server. As Thesis 2 currently sits, it cannot be done. You have to edit or modify the skin on the live server.

      This is only one of the issues with Thesis 2. As you well know, we’re told over and over again in the support forum that the update to fix many of the problems will come out “soon” or on Monday. Now I know what Monday means, but I didn’t know what soon means. I’ve asked for clarification and have received none.

      I posted a question in the support forums asking why blockquotes are not supported in the default skin and I had to add them myself. I was told by one of the mods that most themes don’t come with blockquote styling options and neither did thesis 1.x . I was told to add it myself by creating a package. I then posted the code from 1.85 that showed this to be wrong. What was their response? Nothing…..

    • Dave

      Sorry, what version of Thesis 2.0 are you using? Only ask because it sounds bloody brilliant compared to what the rest of the planet is using.

      Releasing a product which is unfinished, untested, lacking ANY official documentation, missing the promised extras’ and does not fit with the ‘sales hype’ of usable by anyone, is by my estimation as far removed from ‘exceptional’ as it is humanly possible to get.

  • What a great way to handle criticism…

  • Wow… I had no idea Derek of worked for Thesis.

  • The authors maturity and professionalism is a stark contrast to Pearson and his peers. In fact, the author’s approach amplifies how mind-bogglingly juvenile the DIY crowd’s own thought-processes are.

    It’s quite the contrast, and quite the irony. Keep blogging Alex. You’re a better man.

  • I’m a big proponent of most of these theme frameworks, and at one time have developed on them all.

    Sure, some of the updates aren’t groundbreaking by any means – the idea of a drag and drop template editor has been around for some time and they each have a similar interface. I still prefer it over the headway interface, which can be confusing for newbies too who don’t understand they need to use custom css to create overlapping elements or nested divs, because the visual editor certainly doesnt imply that.

    Right now I’m not sure Thesis2 is ready for newbies. I couldnt imagine trying to explain its editing usage to a client.

    But as a developer, I can appreciate its usefulness and will admit it has saved me some time in the design process.The new hook system makes adding custom code very easy, and the skin organization makes creating and packaging a child theme for moving and cloning very easy.

    I think one of the reasons DIY can “get away” with lack of documentation and a poor release is the fact that their support group is in another class compared to the other frameworks. Questions get answered there in a matter of minutes as opposed to days (or never) on some of the other framework support sites.

    The only problem with all these frameworks is – they’re all relatively costly for newbies, and it’s hard to really get a sense of how they work without first paying for it.

    Your article is a good one though, and I think it helps for people to think critically about these frameworks.

  • Matt

    Yes, I think you’re absolutely spot-on here. I am a Thesis customer and have since kicked myself repeatedly after seeing almost zero communication from DIYThemes (Thesis 2 was delayed and delayed and delayed for over a year without any communication as to what was going on) and a lack of maturity and professionalism across the board. Chris apparently does not take criticism well and the marketing from Derek comes across as a whole lot of smarm. I want respect, professionalism, maturity, and communication from the businesses I work with and am willing to pay for it. Unfortunately, DIYThemes has failed on all fronts.

  • Hey Alex, Jean from WP Mayor here. Came across this article and I have to say that I found the comments from the Thesis guys really apalling. Being a regular follower of your blog, I know what stuff you’re made of and using your age as one of the main criteria for dismissing your post is really strange.

    Thesis might have the best marketing guys in the industry, but they desperately need someone to handle their PR if they want to avoid such embarassing outings.

    Keep up the good work Alex, you’re an inspiration for all of us in the WordPress community.

  • After WooThemes menu feature that got into WP core, what has been the next ground breaking innovation in WP theme market?

    Seems like theme market is innovating but it may be doing the right thing focusing on design, leaving functionality to plugins.

    Most major theme shops like StudioPress, WooThemes Elegant Themes, iThemes have a plugin section now. Innovation happens but in plugins. This helps to keep the theme lean while allowing the plugins to be used in any theme.

  • Amelia Warren

    I feel somewhat sorry for Chris Pearson. If his twitter feed is anything to go by, he hates his customers, and sees nothing but problems with the world. Every single tweet of his is negative.

  • You guys are rocking with WordPress , the moment i moved to WP from BLogger , i felt like i wasted or missed experience with WordPress for almost 3 years.

    i was with BLogger for nearly three and a half years, just 4 months now i’m on WordPress.

    it really inspires young students like me, i hope one day i’ll make my contribution to the wordpress community as a Web Developer :)

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