I've had hundreds of conversations with companies considering a new / redesigned website. One of the most frequent questions I've heard from those interested in using a content management systems or shopping cart platform such as WordPress, Shopify, Drupal, Joomla or BigCommerce is the following: Why should I pay $20,000 (or whatever equivalent) to design a custom website when I can spend $100 and a few hours configuring a pre-built Premium Theme?
It's an important question to ask and can cost thousands if answered incorrectly - either in an over-built expensive custom site or a generic-looking pre-built site that doesn't actually drive revenue. Rather than persuade you of a particular side, let me share my observations on the pros and cons of each option:
Defining a Pre-Built Theme
We define a 'pre-built theme' as any pre-designed, 'ready-to-go' theme that can be downloaded for free or at a nominal rate (usually between $20 - $200). They're often found through 'theme marketplaces' such as ThemeForest, 'platform-specific marketplaces' such as the Shopify Theme Gallery or by companies who specialize in developing 'theme platforms' such as WooThemes. These themes can easily be purchased, downloaded, installed and configured within a relatively short time-frame with minimal coding required.
Why Use a Pre-Built Theme
- Cost Effective: It's easy to see that the price point (typically between $20 - $200) of a pre-built theme is pretty hard to beat. Even adding in the hourly cost of web developer to help you install and configure the theme, you could likely keep the budget between $500 - $2,500.
- Quick Deployment: Pre-built themes are designed to get you up-and-running quickly. Most have default settings and content that allow you to launch a 'dummy site' as soon as you install the theme.
- Geared Towards Non-Technical Users: Most pre-built themes include a series of configurable options related to layout, design and functionality. These configurations can be made right within an options panel using minimal to no code, which is a great fit for non-technical users.
- Great for Prototyping: Given the low cost / turnaround associated with pre-built themes, they're a great resource when 'prototyping' new ideas, products or markets where initial investment needs to be kept to a minimum while test data is collected.
Why NOT to Use a Pre-Built Theme
- Limitations with Design: Although most pre-built themes include a fairly robust options panel, there is a finite limit to the customization you can make with the design of your site. This is especially true for structural changes which require the use of specific templates and template settings.
- Limitations with Functionality: You'll find many themes packed with functionality, especially for specific users such as photo galleries, shopping carts and membership management. However, most of the functionality built within these themes is quite inflexible and should be taken as 'what you see is what you get'.
- Commoditization Effect: Although you can push a pre-built theme pretty far with the available customization, it's not unlikely that users will recognize certain elements of your website as common or generic. This perception can create a potential 'commoditization' of your offering within a marketplace of similar competitors.
Defining a Custom Theme
We define a 'custom theme' as any theme that is designed and developed from scratch. These themes require working with a freelancer or agency to strategize, wireframe, design and code. The 'look and feel' as well as functionality are 100% customized to the clients needs.
Why Use a Custom Theme
- Brand-Specific: Naturally, a custom-designed theme can be built around your existing brand to whatever level of detail necessary without limitation
- Expansive Functionality: Custom themes are particularly useful for websites with advanced functional requirements or integration necessary with other third-party software.
- Customer-Centric: A custom design allows you to craft a unique experience that directly reflects your customers needs and values. The design can be built around the way you know they interact with the web.
- Differentiation: With a custom theme, you'll remove the issue of 'commoditization' and allow your offering to stand out as a uniquely differentiated product/service.
- Supports Marketing Efforts: A custom-designed site can be built around specific marketing initiatives such as matching landing pages with online advertising campaigns or integrating social media directly within your website.
Why NOT to Use a Custom Theme
- Heavier Investment: Naturally a custom site is going to be a much larger investment in cost, especially if there is extensive brand design work or custom functionality involved.
- Longer Timelines: Along with cost comes the time associated with designing and developing a custom website. Timelines can easily span between 2 - 6 months depending on your requirements.
Choosing a Path
In the end, it's up to you to determine which path makes the most sense for your company. In our experience, we've typically seen companies all into one of the two camps based on the following scenarios:
Companies Successfully Using Pre-Built Themes:
- A new company just coming to market with limited resources
- An existing company looking to rapidly prototype a new offer
- A company who places little focus on web-related sales and lead generation
One company we helped in the past implement a pre-built theme includes TalentBench. TalentBench is actually an offshoot service of a larger executive search firm and were a perfect candidate for using a pre-built theme as their goal was to establish a low-cost means of testing a new potential service / market fit.
Companies Successfully Using Custom Themes:
- Established brands looking to differentiate themselves in the marketplace
- Companies with particularly advanced functional/integration requirements
- Companies whose websites play a vital role in their marketing and sales efforts
One company we helped implement a custom theme includes SchoolWorks. SchoolWorks provides consulting and strategic planning services to education organizations. They were a perfect fit for a custom theme as they wanted to create uniquely branded process graphics and provide rich case studies that automatically 'connected' to the services and team members responsible for their results.
We're always happy to share our thoughts on this for specific companies, so don't hesitate to reach out with your own unique scenario.