This post is part of our ongoing Digital Strategy Notes series.

John Gough, Shawn Hardy, Kyle Theisen, and Dallin Harris discuss the question “When should I use a WordPress template versus custom design and development?”

Clients come to use for web design and development solutions. One way to save money on a new site is to start with a WordPress template, but in practice, we find that the cost and time savings can be limited depending on what the client is hoping to get out of the site.

[bctt tweet=”Security, code standards, creativity… those are the things you should focus your effort on.” username=”SkyhookInt”]

TRANSCRIPT
John:
Hi, everybody. My name is John Gough and these are digital strategy notes from Skyhook Interactive. With me today I’ve got Shawn Hardy, who is our director of strategy; Kyle Theisen, who’s our studio manager and our lead developer; and Dallin Harris, who’s the principal and director of new business at Skyhook. Today we’re going to spend a few minutes, just a few minutes, talking about when to use a WordPress template versus going full custom design and development for your website. It’s a question that we get asked fairly regularly. A lot of people think that they can save money just by going with a WordPress template versus custom design and development. Sometimes that’s true, but I wanted to ask you guys what you thought about when was a good time to save money in that way and when you shouldn’t skimp on that particular piece. Dallin, you want to start out?

Dallin:
Yeah, I mean the draw for doing a template is obvious. It’s cheaper. It’s faster. Anyone who could use a template in any situation would want to, but there are some drawbacks. The gains aren’t always as strong as you would think and there are some situations where I would say you want to be careful. Templates work really well in my opinion when you don’t expect to change much. Changing templates is difficult, so if it comes out of the box exactly like you like it, that’s helpful. When it comes from a reliable source, you can get templates from reliable sources and from non-reliable sources. If a template’s not coded well, if it’s not strong under the hood, then it can cause you more headache than it’s worth. I would say a template is good to use when conversion rate isn’t as big of an issue.

If you’re going to have 5 or 10 or maybe 50 customers a month on your site and it’s not a huge part of your business, maybe you can get away with a template. If you’ve got hundreds of customers or if those transactions are very important, it’s going to be worth the extra money to do a custom site because custom sites convert better across the board. I think the thing to keep in mind really is that, at least in our experience, going the template route doesn’t save more than 10 or 20% of the website cost at the end of the day, so you really want to be sure that you don’t need the custom design because it’s not that big of a cost savings.

John:
Why do you think that is? Why is it only 10 or 20%? I mean, “the whole thing is basically built” is the argument.

Dallin:
Yeah. That’s the sell or that’s the theory is that the whole thing is already built, but really a website consists of figuring out how the customers are going to come in, what content needs to be on there, what different pages, what kind of flow they’re going to go through the site. Even if you have a template, there’s a whole lot more to think about than just the design and development structure.

John:
Yeah, I agree with that and I think from my perspective some of the hardest conversations that you have with clients who’re coming in are people who have gotten 80% of the way through website development and they’ve picked a template and they’re almost there, but there are 2 or 3 things that it just won’t do for them. You mentioned if it doesn’t need to have a lot of changes. They’re at the end, or what they think is the end, but they can’t quite get it all the way there. That’s the most frustrating moment when you realize that you’ve just poured all this work into something that just won’t turn into the one thing you need it to be.

Dallin:
What I want to be clear, I feel like I’ve spoken somewhat disparagingly of templates. We at Skyhook don’t end up doing a lot of these, but I think there is a business case in which it makes a ton of sense. Your website isn’t that big a part of your marketing strategy. You literally just want to throw something up. You’re testing a new concept. I’m not here to say, “Never use a template.” I think there’s definitely a business case for it.

Kyle:
Yeah, I think the biggest thing is if the template does everything out of the box, then you should go with the template. It’s most likely for you, but if you need something unique and you need to start customizing that and getting a developer involved, it can get expensive pretty fast because that code is all foreign to them and they’re not familiar with it. Just making some tweaks can cost a fair amount of money that seem simple to you but may take a lot of development time.

Dallin:
Yeah, even though the template may say that it has customization features built in, this is where a lot of people go wrong. The template says that’s all changeable. I have yet to see where that’s actually true. It may let you pick colors, it may let you change fonts, but sooner or later, if you’re changing the site at all, you’re going to hit some wall that that template can’t do out of the box. Now you’re having to hire a custom developer not only to fix that, but to learn this code, like you said. That’s a good point.

[bctt tweet=”The template says that’s all changeable. I have yet to see where that’s actually true. @dallinharris” username=”SkyhookInt”]

Kyle:
Yeah, and you touched on it as well. If the website is important to you, but it’s not the most critical part to your business. One aspect of that is speed optimization. If you don’t need your site to be super fast and need to be loading super quick, then a template’s okay for you. They have a lot of bulk. They’re trying to please thousands of customers, which means they’re trying to load all the features in there. That also means it’s not very streamlined. They’re loading everything when you only need one slideshow or whatever that feature may be.

Dallin:
There’s speed implications, there’s security implications because this is now a much more complicated piece of software that could be hacked, so why add that bloat to your site?

Kyle:
Yeah, exactly.

Dallin:
Makes sense.

John:
I think about the sites that we do build on templates. Sometimes customers come to us and they say, “I’ve got this particular budget,” or, “I only have these targets in mind.” Like you’re talking about, Dallin, they don’t need it to do all these other custom things. We’ll say, “You should use a template.” This is a great use case for a template. When we do that, we’ve got really I think 2 or 3 at this point, maybe just 2, that we will recommend. Because the temptation is to look at Theme Forest or Template Monster and say, “Wow, there are thousands. I’ve got all these options.” When the reality is most of those are variations of the same thing and a lot of them are really hard to use. Having background in how they work and what features are available turns out to be really a big benefit there.

Kyle:
Now we have experience, so we know what these templates are capable of. When somebody does need to change them, we can do it in a little bit more efficient way than if it was just some unknown template. That’s why we do like to choose only a couple instead of just pick whatever one you want. Then when the client does have changes, which it’s pretty common they want to change something, then we can do that in a reasonable rate.

John:
Yeah. At the risk of dating ourselves, I think Enfold and Avada are the 2 that work these days. Right now these those …

Kyle:
That we favor.

John:
Yeah, we like these. They’re the top ones of Theme Forest right now. I think they’re there for a reason. People keep going back to them because they’re pretty streamlined. They’ve got the right kinds of functionality. There’s some variety of look and feel that you can get out of it.

Dallin:
I think this is probably a good opportunity to chime in about the benefits of a custom website as opposed to a template. Why would I want to spend the extra money? To me, this centers entirely around, if you guys have heard anything from Skyhook you probably heard us mention this concept of a digital brand advocate or this idea that a website is advocating on behalf of you, on behalf of your brand. You look at your top salesperson and what they can do for an organization in terms of getting people excited about working with you. Your website should really be doing that for you, and it’s hard to achieve that with a template. A template is someone else’s vision of what a company should look like or someone else’s thought of how this should all come together. A template very rarely, in my opinion, achieves that standard of creating an emotional connection with a customer, which is the main reason why you would want to spend the couple thousand extra bucks to go the custom route.

Shawn:
I think that one of the reasons to go with a template is that if you don’t feel like you’re unique and being unique is not important to you or your customers. Like you, I think I would challenge. I’ve yet to run into a business that is not unique in some way, shape, or form. I think sometimes that’s an easy thing to say is, “Oh, we deliver a product that everybody else delivers and we deliver it in the same way.” However, every business that I’ve run into and worked on their marketing or their website, there’s something about their process or the way they sell that product or the way that they handle their customers that is unique. That’s why people buy from them and not their competitors. That’s a risky place to be. However, if what you do is truly not unique, a template can be a good option.

John:
Yeah, or if you’re one of the lucky few … Maybe I’ll let you answer this question: If you find a template that just completely encapsulates what you’re trying to do, is that good enough? Did you just win the lottery? Would you still say that there is enough reason to go back and do custom development or custom design on top of something that you found that looks close?

Shawn:
I’d say that’s a little bit of a unicorn. Will it be good enough for a lot of businesses who have limited time or limited funds? Yes. Will it get you through? Will it last 6 months or a year, maybe a couple years? Absolutely. If you run into that situation, think about it, but also think about those implications. I don’t think it’s a long-term play. One of my other thoughts is if your website is a short-term play, go for a template. It’s temporary. You plan on bigger things. You’ve got big shifts going on in your business there down the road. Go for a template. Even if you hit that unicorn, I would be a little bit skeptical of it being your end all be all solution like a custom website would be.

John:
Yeah, that makes me think of a campaign. I’ve got my main site, but I want to put up a couple of landing pages or something. Maybe then a template is really a good solution for that.

Dallin:
I don’t know. I can’t get on board with that framing of it because to me a campaign could be very important. To me it’s about the value of the traffic and the quantity of that traffic as a factor of that. Even a short campaign with a really high dollar, a lot’s at stake, I would go custom on that. I would do it right. I think it’s the value of the traffic to your business that dictates it. The other thing I would say is you should never go into a template, almost never, maybe never go into a situation where you’re planning on customizing a template. Like I said, if you spend even more than a little bit starting to customize it, you’re already annihilating the entire benefit of going with one. It really needs to be exactly what you want it to do.

John:
Yeah, I think maybe if there’s one consensus that we could all definitely land on is that a template is not as easy as some would have you believe to make it your own. You’ve got to find the thing that pretty much does what you want it to do there in the preview because it’s not going to do much that it’s not showing you right there.

Dallin:
What I say is if you are considering going the template route, make sure you still get the information architecture and the content right. That’s the most important thing, that the message and what you’re loading into it, that’s what converts someone on a website. Still make sure you’re spending money and time there. Find one you don’t have to change, I already talked about that. Don’t even bother with questionable authors. Don’t even tempt yourself. Don’t look at some of these sources where a template’s 10 bucks or free. I mean, you’re just asking for pain down the road. John, you brought up this point, but consider one of these mainstream themes like Enfold or Avada. They are done right. If you can fit your model into what they do at all, I think you’ll be happier with the experience.

Shawn:
I want to throw in a little bit of a wrench in that. We kind of gave away our secret sauce a little bit. We don’t talk about the templates that we choose openly very often with our clients. Let’s talk about why whoever is listening to this shouldn’t just go out and buy Enfold or Avada and spin it up themselves. Why should they hire Skyhook when they need to …

John:
Yeah, I think that’s a totally valid question and I think it’s the things that Dallin just said. There’s so much more to the website than just “can you put the HTML and CSS together? Can you get WordPress up and running?” Because you can. If you’re capable to do that, then you can go buy some managed WordPress hosting on GoDaddy or whatever else and put in the work, the tens or 20 hours that it takes to get it all set up. Then you’ll have a website up and running. What you won’t have with that amount of work that I just described is all the strategy, the information architecture, the background that goes into understanding the brand and how it works. Then as Kyle mentioned earlier, the gotchas that you may not know or may not be familiar with from not having the experience with those things and the real danger. I talk to these people who are almost done because they thought they could do it all themselves and it turns out that they can’t. It’s very frustrating. I feel for them.

Shawn:
I agree with you.

Dallin:
I think the web development agencies that are hinging their whole value on “we have a theme that others don’t know about,” that’s a part of the value but it isn’t even the bulk of it.

John:
Yeah, I agree. The template itself, especially we’re buying these things from the biggest theme factory that’s out there on the Internet right, buying number 1 and number 2. It’s not really special sauce, except for the fact that we don’t come out and say, “Pick between these 2 templates.” Again because we’re trying to come at it with an understanding of what the brand needs and we know what these things can do from having done it several times. We don’t want to put 5 in front of them and say, “Pick your favorite.”

Kyle:
We use a couple templates because we like them and we have experience with them and we just stumbled upon them from using it on one client site. Now we have used them more and more and we’re starting to like them and get familiar with them. The reality is there’s a lot of good WordPress developers that have their own little show that they’re very well known and they have 5 or 6 templates and they’re very good. Those aren’t ones we use, but they’re still very good ones. There’s tons of them. I won’t mention any of them, but if you get involved in the WordPress community, you start looking it up, you’ll find some good names out there of companies that have good themes. They may not be ones we use, but that doesn’t mean they’re not good.

John:
Yeah. If I name any themes it’s going to be just because, again, we have experience with it.

Kyle:
Yes.

John:
That’s the value add of having done it before is you know what it can do and what it can’t do. Whether it’s the number 1 theme on Theme Forest or it’s one of these premium custom themes from a really quality WordPress developer, there’s still a learning curve. No matter where you’re coming from, there’s going to be ramp up time.

Kyle:
Yup. The benefit with us is if you’re going to do a theme with us for whatever reason, we have already ramped up and been up to speed and we know what to do. We can customize that in a way that will benefit you. That’s one of the reasons why we would do a theme with you.

Dallin:
Yeah, but if you take a theme from just a single author, I think even though it may be coded very well because that particular author is good, you’re taking a pretty big risk that he or she goes out of business or isn’t updating this thing in the future. That’s a problem.

Kyle:
That’s the same on Theme Forest, but they’re just as unknown or even more unknown than some of the ones I’m thinking of. You’ll have to look into the reputation, how long they’ve been around, but some of these themes on Theme Forest, they pop up. They’re one-man shops. They throw in a lot of background and you don’t have a lot of recourse. Same with if you go with some website you just found to buy a theme. You got to have to do your research either way.

John:
What recourse would you have, right? Even if it didn’t work, you’ve already spent all your time developing and building on this platform that’s …

Kyle:
You spent less than a 100 bucks.

Shawn:
Yeah. I guess a 100 bucks in hard dollars now, not $100 in time.

John:
Exactly, that’s true.

Dallin:
I guess what I’m observing is that another benefit to going with a custom site is that you don’t have a baked in security hole. I mean, say, for example, that template, wherever it came from, is no longer updated. That’s now a security problem for your business because you’ve got a target on your back. That template was installed on 10,000 other sites and some hacker figures that out. Now you’re unwittingly a target for attack and you’re vulnerable because that template’s not being updated anymore.

Shawn:
I think what I’m taking away from this is that whether it’s a template or not is actually not a crucial point. I think the crucial point is that there’s a lot of really complex things that go into building a good website. Whether it’s security, whether it’s code standards, whether it’s creativity, those are the things you should focus your effort on. If you can achieve 80 or 90% of those things with a template, it’s a great consideration. A website is not made up of HTML and CSS, and it’s not made up of Photoshop and Sketch files either. It’s made up of a lot of other things.

[bctt tweet=”It’s up to you to figure out if you can tune the template up to be on the high end of what everybody else is doing, or if you can’t.” via=”no”]

John:
Yeah. I think my final thought on that is that, as I look around the web, there’s obviously a ton of websites that have been built off these templates that look exactly like templates. They obviously came straight out of the box. Then there’s a set of websites that are premium, just super high-end stuff that are incredibly creative or there’s weird JavaScript things going on and animations and videos and all kinds of stuff. Those are very cool. It’s somewhere right in the middle that most businesses need their marketing websites to live. You don’t want to be just like everybody else and you don’t need something that’s going to blow everybody’s mind. It’s up to you to figure out if you can tune the template up to be on the high end of what everybody else is doing, or if you can’t find something out there that really matches you and really fits. At that point, then you’re going to go custom.

Kyle:
The other part of going custom I think is, Dallin touched on it earlier, which is you’re going to continue to do marketing efforts and you’re going to be doing new landing pages every 6 months. Adding on a landing page in a template is no big deal, but the moment that you want to do something else that you didn’t know about 6 months ago or a year ago, that becomes quite a challenge and you’ll probably have to get a developer involved, and who knows how much that’ll cost you?

John:
All right, guys. Well, thanks for your time. Appreciate you taking the moment to talk about templates and custom development. We’ll see you again. Thanks for listening.