Performancing Metrics

Sponsored Themes – This ain’t black and white

A big hubbub is being made recently about sponsored themes not being listed on WLTC any more. Does this personally bother me? Not at all. It’s his site – he can do whatever he wants. Just like they have every right to take sponsored themes off

But when posts are titled “WLTC High Ground” it just makes me vomit in my mouth a little. Talk about elitism. “You release sponsored themes, you must be inferior.” I have got nothing against Matt Mullenweg, he is a swell guy, and one of the very few people that I respect in the blogging world.

Bloggy Network has released one sponsored theme. We did it in a unique way, and pretty much received zero critism. Did I feel bad about releasing a sponsored theme? Not one bit.

Thing is – we have a lot of experience ‘on the other side’. Any post on a forum like DigitalPoint asking for sponsor themes invariable lists our own blog themes site.

We charge for sponsorships like we would for a normal design. They came to us and basically bought a design. We did haggle over the details (such as the ability to remove their link if people wanted), but the final price was still in the four digits.

There is a market for sponsored themes. And just like anything in life, there is crap (ie stuffing fives links on a five-minute design), and quality (I like to think our InSense is a quality theme). The blanket statement of ‘all sponsored themes are evil’ is rather childish. We have had over a dozen established web companies come to us, interested in sponsoring a theme. We decided to stop, not because we felt it was wrong, but because we could pull more benefit for ourselves.

We don’t release sponsored themes ourselves anymore, but we are developing themes to release on several of our blogs. A nice little pink and star filled WordPress theme will be released on Celebrific within the next few weeks. We will link to Celebrific from that theme, as we are building it specifically for the blog’s demographic and are releasing it directly off that site. It will contain a link back to the site itself as well as Design Disease, which is our design arm (and obviously did the design). We do want the attention it will provide. Are we suddenly not welcome in the ‘high ground’ because we released a theme with a link back to our site? The marketing boost that our latest theme, Illacrimo (just try to tell me that is a cheap theme) did for LifeSpy was fantastic.

I personally believe the SEO value is minimal. Google isn’t stupid – people have been adding links to the footer for ages. They are not dumb enough that their search engine couldn’t filter out the text that is in the exact same sentence in the exact same spot of a design over and over and over again.

The slippery slope of ‘sponsored’ concerns me. Are our themes considered ‘sponsored spam’? Thing is – we know about the troubles of subjective decisions. We approve every single blog submitted to Blog Flux (up to 500 a day). We manually verify each and every single one – the web is subjective, not comprised of two colors. Sponsored themes with five links made in five different colors? Ban them. But a high quality sponsored theme that people actually like – why not?

We released Illacrimo on LifeSpy because it fit what the readers over there were looking for. Because of the theme release, I would estimate that LifeSpy received between 10,000-15,000 extra visitors to the site (which includes approximately 5% from Weblog Tools Collection), approximately 50 sites linking to the actual post of the release itself, 7,500 downloads (about 15% from, and close to 250 new subscribers to our site feed.

Isn’t the argument that good content gets you traffic? In our case, a good theme release did that for us. We gave up money by not developing a theme for someone else, but we gained in many ways (opportunity cost well spent). I believe Illacrimo firmly belongs to the ‘top 10 free-WP themes ever’ list.

The stigma being associated with sponsored themes concerns me – mostly because influential people are grouping all sponsored themes as the same. If a customer comes to us, orders a design, and then releases it to the public – are we supposed to stop them? Shall we grill all potential clients about specific use for this theme? Is it wrong for them to release the theme for free, even though they fully paid for it? We create designs for various companies, many of them firmly rooted in the brick and mortar area – what they do with the design should not be our concern.

I think it is important for the community to realize that the issue is not sponsored themes themselves, but a certain (admittedly a large) segment of that area.

This would have been a simple matter of only allowing themes in that agree to the following three points:

  • Only one sponsored link and of course a link to the author’s site may be included in the footer
  • The link text contained within the footer must use the actual site name, not SEO’ed link text
  • The users who download must be able to remove the sponsored link if they’d like

Point #1 takes care of the overflow of links
Point #2 takes care of a large chunk of SEO spam
Point #3 ensures that people can still use the design if they feel uncomfortable with the sponsored link.

The above is the new standard that our own Blog Flux Themes will be adopting. Blogging Pro will adopt the same criteria. I encourage other bloggers to adopt the same basic rules.

I look forward to having a constructive conversation about sponsored themes.

Categories: General

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  1. franky ) says: 7/13/2007

    Out of experience and test I have noticed that a link in an entry weighs almost as much for GOOG as many footer links.
    And I totally agree with the underlying thought. I think this time Matt has lost the community spirit and everything is based on pured demagogy.

    One more vote pro decent themes. Sponsored or not, (harsh) support from me over at Wisdump.

    Continue! Your themes rock!
    And if… we’ll just create a new themes directory. ;-)


  2. Jim says: 7/13/2007

    As I stated on the WLTC comments, I don’t mind the sponsored themes as long as they fall under these two categories:

    1) The theme must be VERY good.
    2) I don’t like links in the footer. By law, there’s nothing anyone can do to force someone to keep them there (I’ve checked into it). So themers need to be more flexible and realistic. I would be more than happy to put the links on the ‘about’ page or a ‘colophone’ type of page – which I’ve found gets a surprising amount of traffic. There are just so many other options other than force feeding a half dozen links to poker sites and whatnot onto my homepage.


  3. Ash Haque says: 7/13/2007

    Not a big fan of sponsored themes myself, but I think you have made several good points. Especially the fact that there is a huge difference between a theme developer spending a lot of time making an awesome theme and getting a little bit of monetization back and someone making a theme in 5 minutes and selling 5 sponsored links.


  4. Matt says: 7/13/2007

    You have some good points. Too bad themes like yours are a incredible minority, and you don’t release them under the GPL.


  5. ruigato says: 7/13/2007

    I think you are absolutely right.

    Im fairly new in blogging, but i use for some years Joomla/Mambo Cms for my sites.

    The GPL templates and specialy the good ones give great value to the aplications, users with no design knowledge or recources to hire a design company support on this themes and in the end the ability to customise the aplication its very important wen making a decision betwen one or another app.

    Developers, and specialy design firms have allways used this not only to promote and share they’r work but also, off corse to get some links back and rank.

    I think that the sponsoring think is good, speacialy wen the final work is a good one.
    Off course that the reverse of the coin, spam links, its a think to avoid, but the suggestion you made its more than enough.

    What comes next? Ban links in comments?

    I honnestly prefer to see in the future the same sponsored principle aplyed in plugins, that way we may had more professional and even better and more profesional plugins lauched.

    My 2 cents.. (Sorry the bad English)

    RuiGato (from portugal)


  6. David Krug says: 7/14/2007

    I personally think Matt is being a nasty little dictator prick. But hey that’s just me. This the guy who install’s his link on how many sites?


  7. Jacob says: 7/14/2007

    Franky – thanks for the compliment :) we think so too

    Jim – that’s an interesting idea. Themes

    Ash – that’s the problem, 5 minute themes

    Matt – thanks for stopping by, I completely agree we’re in the minority. I just think the community would have been a little better served with more leniency from you and that guy who runs WLTC. Then also you wouldn’t have a large amount of people drawing a line and stepping on one side or the other.


  8. Moses Francis says: 7/15/2007

    wow, that was a good read, a well written article indeed.

    I do agree with the fact that there’s only a minority of “sponsored themes” out there that really are not 5 minute designs and it’s a pity that some stuff too many links in the footer.


  9. Mark says: 7/15/2007

    I’m 100% with you on everything you say here, Jacob. It’s very well thought out and highlights why this “blanket policy” being adopted is just wrong. Good themes by top designers are not cheap, nor is the time spent supporting users post-release. Matt himself has conceded the point in his comment above. It’s like burning a whole crop just because there are some weeds. Your suggested compromises are both ethical and fair. At Performancing, we will continue with this model. To deny the WP community the chance to use free, quality themes by top designers would be wrong. I therefore join you in recommending these policies- dealing with the spam – and giving users the ultimate choice.


  10. Bret says: 7/16/2007

    I think you make a good point about the “elitist” attitude towards sponsored themes. To a certain extent it feels like an extension of those bloggers that have disdain for blogs with ads. Everyone has a right to not place ads on their site, but to imply that someone is less of a blogger because they accept advertisement is completely ridiculous.

    Personally, I don’t like hidden difficult to remove links in a free theme, but have nothing against someone that releases a theme with clearly visible easy to remove links. Matter of fact, to release a theme and clearly state that it is made free due to the contributions of these sponsors (then insert the links) is completely fair in my opinion (I elaborated on that point over at my blog this morning).

    All in all I appreciated hearing your view on this matter and am impressed with what I have read on this debate thus far. Everyone has been pretty professional regardless of their position. That approach leads to a much better debate.


  11. Kolin says: 7/17/2007

    I often look for new themes to come ’cause have several blogs on different topics, some themes are nice and have only one link in the footer, but what makes the authors of other themes to put there link everywhere? Recently I spent half an hour to remove ‘em all. I don’t like such practice as well


  12. Mark says: 7/18/2007

    It’s almost like the CD’s stuck in a loop, and there is only one line to hear over and over again, “Sponsored themes, blah blah blah…………..”

    When you’re in a spot, you can say “But sponsored themes, blah blah blah”. It’s become more of a defense mechanism for being evasive about all other issues and cover-up loopholes within the system.

    It will be nice to see all frustration out though once and for all instead of continuing with the saga month after month.

    What I propose is this:

    Good designers (sponsored and non-sponsored both) should unite and start their own site, while they can continue to upload themes on all other theme distribution sites. It’s the quality of the theme that is important, footers are secondary. Users do not care as much about footers as much as they care about an easily customizable theme of their choice for which they could get support, and while we continue our debate, our users are smarter not to participate in this petty fight and know well how to customize their own footers too!

    Some believe that a site with the highest traffic is the only way to go. Temporarily yes, but not necessarily in the long run. I see it this way, traffic is not built in a day and it’s we who collectively make a site big or small.

    @ Jacob,

    I seriously doubt if Matt will let go of such a huge traffic so easily, I’m sure he would find an ethical way out to let themes back in (or is it already done yet:)) Let’s not underestimate our 23 year old genius! He sure knows how to get things done his way, and thanks to our whole big army of ass-kissers who make the task rather easy!

    Regardless, we hope to submit our 90+ themes on your site soon. Let’s see how it goes!


  13. Mark says: 7/18/2007

    @ Bret

    Who is to blame Matt for the “elitist” attitude?

    We and only we. If I gave you more than necessary importance, wouldn’t it be natural for you to have an exulted superiority complex? Besides Matt is a young achiever, most of us can’t do what he’s done in a lifetime. So, it’s expected.

    Tell me how many of us dare to say things like it is. I’m not talking about Shoemoney or BloggingPro, I’m talking about our regular theme contributors. Most users are shit scared of him, leave a few exceptions.

    I’m not justifying his “elitist” attitude, however we should also learn to command respect. You must have heard this one: No one can insult you without your own permission.


  14. Lorelle says: 7/19/2007

    At last, some common sense. Thank you.

    Until the definition of what “sponsored” means is clearly established, grouping all Themes together with more than one link to the author is a little out of control.

    Still, the discussion was put before the public for many months before a decision was made. Now the policy is being written, which will include the definitions, and WordPress users will continue to come first for protection from dozens of links, ad links, javascripts which influence pagerank and advertising revenue, and other more “nasty” things that have appeared in WordPress Themes.

    GPL WordPress Themes are great portfolio examples of what a designer can do, so they should offer the designer a way to promote their wares. I know several web designers who call themselves that on their business cards because they got exposure through WordPress Themes. That’s wonderful.

    As for the reference “high ground”, while there are a thousand ways of titling that post, I’m rather intrigued with the way so many have put “so much” on the words. For me, it meant that Weblog Tools Collection had made a decision in line with their standards and moral value. I have no problem with that and live the “high ground” on my blog daily, to that definition.

    It takes a lot of courage to stand up for your rights. Not arrogance, self-righteousness, ego, or any of the other words I’ve seen used. Walking the high ground keeps you out of the dangers such as flash flood waters and safe on the path of your life – that’s what I was raised with in Native American Indian country. We need more bloggers and everyone taking the high ground.


  15. Daria Black says: 7/21/2007

    Thank you so much for saying what I’ve been feeling about this whole situation. Not all sponsored themes are crap and not all sponsored theme designers are spammers. I really wish that the painting with the broad brush strokes would stop and that for a moment people would think with their heads and not with their mouths.

    Great post :)


  16. Simos says: 11/4/2007



  17. usa lemon law says: 7/13/2009

    How can i sponser one?