12 min Read

The Difference Between Custom WordPress Theme vs Premium Theme

12 min Read

The Difference Between Custom WordPress Theme vs Premium Theme

Mike Sayenko
wordpress template vs custom wordpress theme

Since first coming online in 2003, WordPress has grown from a simple and easy-to-use blogging platform into the most recognized and widely used open-source website builders and CMS (content management system). The simplicity of WordPress lies in its WYSIWYG builder and templated modular design. WYSIWYG stands for ‘what you see is what you get’. This format for web development functions off a recognizable editor system that is reminiscent of Microsoft Word and other popular word processing applications. This type of website design is more commonplace now, but at the time it was developed it represented a major democratization in web development. Today, the WordPress platform accounts for 34% of all websites, and has a 60% share of the CMS market. Every one of those WordPress sites operates off a theme which is one of three types – a Custom WordPress Theme, a Premium Theme, or a Free Theme. In this white paper we’ll be examining the differences between the first two theme types from a business perspective. 

Building with WordPress: Plugins and Modules

Rather than requiring in-depth knowledge of HTML, CSS or other coding languages, someone using WordPress could create a professional appearing site if they knew how to use a word processor, and were able to navigate the streamlined WordPress interface. To further customize a website a user was able to stack modules for different elements of a web page (ex: Header, Body, Image Gallery), and further customize the look of their site by selecting one of many available pre-made themes to fit their website needs and desired aesthetic. This ease of use and high level of streamlined customization allowed WordPress to surpass its rival Blogspot and grow from a site builder that was popular amongst amateur content creators to one that could be used in a more professional capacity for businesses and organizations from small to large. 

Plugins function on WordPress much in the same way as apps on a smartphone. The development of accompanying WordPress plugins such as WooCommerce for ecommerce, Yoast for SEO, Akismet for spam blocking, and Jetpack for security and site analytics have further enhanced the business functionality of WordPress. And, while the platform has gained much popularity in being accessible enough for the layperson to build a website, it still maintains a robust back end that allows for professional web developers to customize code, add features and tweak functionality to create truly unique websites. With all the available functionality that WordPress offers, it can be somewhat confusing to know what is the best approach to take in creating a website on the platform.

At Sayenko Design, we are often approached by businesses that have heard about WordPress, and its many advantages as a platform, but are seeking an answer to one of the most common questions in website design – should we find and purchase a Premium WordPress Theme or have a Seattle web design agency create a Custom WordPress Theme specific for our business? 

Below, you’ll find a summary of the advantages and drawbacks of each approach, and be presented with a few use case scenarios to see how these differences impact the development and operation of business websites. If you are debating whether to go Premium or Custom with your company’s site, we hope the following helps you to better understand each approach and make a more informed choice. 

Premium and Custom WordPress Themes Explained

What are WordPress Themes?

When you visit any WordPress site you will always see a theme in place. Whether this is the default WordPress starter theme, a free theme, a premium theme, or a custom theme developed by a design agency for a specific company. A theme is the base layer for all design on a WordPress site and determines the general look and functionality. This is accomplished through editable modules, and also applies a design aesthetic with color palettes, areas for images/graphics, and page builder layouts. Themes may also have preselected groups of plugins and features that are geared towards specific website uses. For example, themes are categorized based on their appeal to photographers, single product ecommerce operations, fashion brands, authors, media outlets, real estate, local storefront business, and many more. 

Themes are found in the WordPress admin interface where you can browse by specific functionality, appearance, upload date, and more, as well as view a live version of an example website created with a selected theme. There are also a number of third party marketplaces for finding WordPress themes that are often more curated and provide more detailed descriptions of each theme’s capability. 

Once a theme is selected you simply download and install via your WordPress admin dashboard. The dashboard will appear largely the same (this layout is controlled by the WordPress platform itself), but the new theme will alter the overall look of your site, switching from the default view of a new WP website, or changing over from your existing theme. This change may break or hide any existing content or plugins, so be sure to understand how the new theme will affect your site and content before confirming. 

Once a theme is applied the placeholder content inserted by the developer can be swapped out for your own content and media. Depending on the customization options of the theme, the color palette and other aesthetic options can also be changed. Further plugins can be applied to an active theme to further customize the look and functionality of the site.

Free Themes

Free themes typically will have limited customization options, and receive less support for new WordPress updates and individual plugin updates, leaving the site particularly vulnerable to hacker attacks and spam. They also will generally look ‘cheaper’ or antiquated in appearance and may not properly implement the newest web design style trends. A free theme is really only recommended if your business doesn’t actually do business online, have a need to appear professional online, or have an opportunity to attract new customers through web searches. The number of companies whose business models fit this description is, obviously, very limited. In almost all cases it is recommended to go with a premium theme.

Premium Themes

Premium WordPress themes are those that have been developed and updated by a developer and listed for sale. Price ranges can vary significantly from the cost of lunch on the lower end to $1,000+ on the higher end. Costs can increase if you are needing more involved features like ecommerce functionality, media galleries, deep aesthetic customization, or customer facing interfaces. Generally speaking, the more money you are spending on a premium theme, the more functionality and control you’ll be getting in return. Higher priced themes will more often than not also look more attractive and stylish out of the box, however, even the most sophisticated premium themes will often require some degree of tweaking to match your desired layout and functionality. Ongoing support is offered with many themes, which means the history and track record (reviews, number of themes, etc.) of the theme developer is an important factor to take into consideration.

Drawbacks of Using a Premium Theme

  • Higher Learning Curve – Because a premium theme is self-managed, the business owner or someone on staff will be managing and updating plugins, WordPress updates, and security.

  • Reliance on Updates from Third Parties – In order to keep all features running smoothly long-term the premium theme, and the site’s plugins, must be regularly updated and maintained by their developers to keep up with WordPress updates, and fix errors. This means your web presence is reliant on a third party that you often do not have a direct relationship with.

  • Excessive code and overlap – Using a growing number of plugins to add functionality to a WordPress site can increase the amount of code on the backend and slow the site. More code from plugins and theme options means more of a chance for conflicts in the HTML, and possible errors in the operation of the site. Additionally, excess code and WordPress plugins can lead to slower overall site speeds, which in addition to annoying site visitors is a sizable ranking factor in Google’s search algorithm.

  • Design and style is limited – Your website won’t be unique and the design will be limited to a WordPress theme that was built to appeal to a wide audience rather than one designed for your individual business. Branding opportunities are often limited by default color palettes and lack of customization to match your brand.

  • Unique business needs may not be served by theme options/functionality – Features like responsive maps, CRM integration, lead generation forms, media portfolios, ecommerce, visual animations, custom site navigation, gated resource center content, and customer/user dashboards may be difficult to find and/or customize in a premium theme. Integrating internal business systems or databases with the website may also be challenging.

  • Limits future changes and migration – If you want to move to a different page builder or custom theme you cannot just migrate your pages/ content, you have to start from scratch. This is due to the use of pre-applied shortcodes in the theme, which will become broken with migration.

What is a Custom WordPress Theme?

A custom WordPress theme is a theme that is built from scratch for a specific website, or a theme that has code modified from an existing template. It has been created by a WordPress web developer for a unique client. The bulk of this customization is done to match design to the branding of a company, implement desired features, streamline backend code, and create features that serve the customer/user base. This type of design work will typically range from the thousands to tens of thousands ($1,000 to $100,000+) with ecommerce and high traffic websites costing more. 

Advantages of a Custom Theme

“By directly editing the code of the site a WordPress developer can unlock the full potential of WordPress.

  • Full Customization – By using custom modules and directly editing the code of the site a WordPress developer can unlock the full potential of WordPress. The backend can be customized to integrate plugins with existing business systems and resources like inventory management systems, CRMs, points of sale, call centers, customer service departments, social media management, and more.

  • Speed – A custom WordPress site will generally have better page speed and performance, because only the functionality needed is included. This streamlining reduces the amount of plugins used to operate the website. A premium theme usually tries to appeal to a broad range of potential users, and can run ‘bloated’ with features.

  • Unique Design for Branding – When looking for high end design elements that closely match brand standards, a custom WordPress theme is better able to deliver a cohesive result. This is particularly true when developing the look of a website around existing graphics and content. Unique layouts, heavily featured media, subtle animations, overlapping elements, and custom illustrations are some of the modern design elements that are more easily applied on-brand with a custom design.

  • Unique Design for Business Needs – A good web designer will work to design a website that prioritizes conversion rate optimization. What a conversion looks like is unique for each business and organization. For a consultant it might mean submitting a request for proposal, for a media outlet it might be a social media follow, and for a single product ecommerce site it might be signing up for a monthly subscription box. A custom website allows for a focus on improving conversion rates, and user experience for a specific audience.

  • Maintained by an Expert – With the responsibility of website maintenance being external there is less need to worry about keeping the theme and plugins up to date. If a conflict is found in a WordPress update, or a security vulnerability is discovered, a team is on hand to solve the issue and edit the code directly if needed. Plugins can be added as necessary without conflict and streamlined to reduce WordPress bloat. A good WordPress web design team will also streamline the backend interface for the client, meaning any self-management of the site or updating of content is intuitive, and involves less navigating to different control panels.

  • SEO and Digital Marketing – With proper implementation of a digital marketing strategy and SEO, a designer can improve how audiences find the site online, and improve conversion rates onsite. This is accomplished by applying researched keywords to website metadata, determining the best site architecture, recommending content, link building, and properly listing all business data onsite, the latter of which is particularly important for storefront businesses and Local SEO.

Drawbacks of a Custom WordPress Theme

  • Cost vs Premium Theme – Having a team work to customize a WordPress theme for your specific business or organization is obviously going to be more expensive than choosing a premium theme built off a template and sold at scale. If your website budget is in the low thousands it may be wiser to stay away from becoming the client of a WordPress design agency. If your budget does allow for custom development, it would be wise to select a designer that has a clear contract regarding cost overages and offers a detailed proposal with line items for everything with a break down of costs. Additionally, as you aren’t learning to manage the maintenance of the website, you should plan for a monthly website support cost.

  • Development Time – Rather than relying on a page builder tool to stack content in pre-designed modules, custom sites rely on content editing tools like Advanced Custom Fields. Building the custom architecture of the site can be an involved process. The coding development process involves quality assurance  to ensure the different elements of the site are functional, which can lead to a series of feedback and testing sessions between client and developer. Integration of offsite business data with the operation and features of the site can also be time consuming.

  • Client Involvement – Involvement and input from the client is critical to confirm the proper functioning of site elements, and ensure that the end product aligns to the client’s goals for the website. If a business or organization does not have the time, resources or people to be actively involved in developing the website strategy, giving feedback on information architecture, or playing a role in the design process then it may be wise to wait until those become available before working directly with a web design agency.

What WordPress Option is Right for My Business?

Every business is unique, and so is how each business approaches website development. We’ve put together a few example scenarios to help illustrate how business factors might affect the decision making process of deciding between a Premium Theme or Custom Theme.

Example 1 – SaaS Product Launch

Jorge is launching a new website to promote and manage his new niche software as a service (SaaS) project management application for event planners. Overall, the company is pretty new as well with most of his small team focused on software development. Their existing website is largely just a placeholder, and the actual application will operate on a subdomain. 

With that fresh start comes an opportunity to build from the ground up. Jorge has determined his new website needs the following features:

  • Case Studies and Client Portfolio – To sell more established clients on the reliability of his SaaS, Jorge will need to showcase existing customers and the benefits they’ve seen since signing up. Because the list of clients is overly long or impressive, a high end presentation with dynamic graphics is important.

    Advantage: Custom

    Many premium themes offer portfolios, but there is a need for a higher end presentation

  • Gated Content for Lead Generation – In an effort to increase leads, the company will hire a writer to create in-depth content and reporting on project management topics. This content will be gated with a user needing to provide basic contact information to access.

    Advantage: Custom

  • Resource Center – It’s been determined that a series of training videos would lessen the manpower needed for onboarding of clients, and reduce questions from potential leads.

    Advantage: Custom & Premium

    A premium theme can provide a functional media gallery, however, later additions of more types/categories of content (and organizing them effectively) would be better handled by a WordPress developer.

  • Customer Support Portal – Existing customers will largely interact with the application itself on the subdomain, but Jorge wants a way for customers to quickly get help. This involves both chat functionality and a custom user dashboard once a client is logged in, as well as the technical integration of customer account information.

    Advantage: Custom

    This is capable with a premium theme, but to continually function with updates, both with WordPress and the company SaaS, it would be better for this to be maintained by a developer.

  • Top End Speed – Because he is selling a service that is largely accessed online, Jorge wants his website to be function as fast and as seamless as possible.

    Advantage: Custom

    Streamlining of plugins and graphics will be a major factor in keeping the site speedy.

Example 2 – Construction Supply Company

Steve runs a third generation family business that sells gravel, sand, and other substrates to local contractors. He wants to update from his existing website, which is rarely updated by anyone on his small team because of its difficult to manage backend. The inventory system that his business runs on is directly attached to the existing website using a legacy utility that his father paid a developer to create 10 years ago. 

Steve has heard WordPress is easier to use for those with limited knowledge of websites. Here is what he knows he wants from the new website:

  • Straightforward Design – Steve is no-nonsense, and so are his B2B customers. Most of the time they just want to know the price and availability of a product. He doesn’t care as much about branding, or being involved in the design process.

    Advantage: Premium

  • Easy to Manage – No one on staff is trained to manage a website, and he’s reluctant to hire for the position. Steve wants an extremely streamlined backend.

    Advantage: Custom

    A developer can reduce the number of plugins used onsite, and simplify the WordPress admin dashboard

  • Better Browsing – The existing website is difficult to navigate, and takes too many clicks to find products. Steve wants streamlined navigation and catalog browsing for customers. The less clicks the better.

    Advantage: Custom 

    Finding the right premium theme to offer the desired navigation, and catalog management, would be a difficult task, and may be hard to keep current.

  • Migrate Existing Website Content – Steve’s father wrote some articles about the industry, which get little traffic because they are hard to find on the existing website. Steve wants more people to see these.

    Advantage: Custom and Premium

    Most all WordPress themes offer a functional blog setup. However, to showcase and update these articles on the site with less admin management, as well as maintain SEO, having a web developer assist is preferable.

  • Up to Date Inventory – While customers still need to call in to place an order, Steve knows it’s important to have his inventory up to date online, and integrate directly with his offline inventory (on the office computer).

    Advantage: Custom

    Matching data to the legacy inventory system will require custom coding and integration tables.

  • Attractive Project Portfolio – While not his top priority, Steve wants to create a portfolio that shows off his more notable projects and collaborations.

    Advantage: Custom

Example 3 – Wedding Photographer

Samantha is an independent photographer whose business has grown primarily around wedding photography. She wants a new WordPress site to showcase her photography work, stand out amongst her peers, and attract new customers. 

Here are some considerations she must keep in mind when building the new website:

  • Limited Budget – With a budget of $2,500 to spend on website development and promotion, Samantha must consider where best to spend her dollars.

    Advantage: Premium

    To avoid potential cost overages, monthly maintenance costs, and developer hourly costs, it would be wise to choose a Premium theme at a set cost.

  • DIY Site Management – As an entrepreneur who is passionate about her business, Samantha is willing to learn the ins and outs of the WordPress admin backend. She understands that if a section of her website breaks, or a plug in is out of date it will be on her to fix it. However, she doesn’t see such an error (website issue) as being critically adverse to her overall business.

    Advantage: Premium

    If she is diligent, Samantha can keep a premium theme functioning properly for quite some time.

  • Transferring from Facebook Business Page to Full Website – Currently, the business largely operates off a Facebook business page. Content and business details will be pulled from here and placed onto the new website by Samantha.

    Advantage: Premium

    Because Samantha is pulling basic content and images from a Facebook site, rather than an existing website, there is less need for assistance with migration. There are also no SEO considerations to worry about in the transfer.

  • Social Media Showcase/Integration – Having a strong social media presence is vital to the photography business. Showcasing popular posts from social media, and encouraging interaction/engagement from visitors would be very beneficial. Additionally, an updating social media feed would reduce the need for new content to be regularly uploaded on the website.

    Advantage: Custom

    While Samantha could use a plugin, or series of plugins, to integrate her social media on the new WordPress website, a custom integration would give a more professional appearance and be more easily manageable.

  • Local SEO – Samantha ultimately wants to rank near the top of Google search results in her local area for ‘wedding photographer’ and related keyword phrases.

    Advantage: Custom

    A WordPress web agency with knowledge of Local SEO and Google trends can recommend site content, meta data, and overall site architecture with the goal of increasing search traffic.

A WordPress web agency with knowledge of Local SEO and Google trends can recommend site content, meta data, and overall site architecture with the goal of increasing search traffic.


What is the Difference Between Premium and Custom WordPress?

While a premium theme may be able to handle your business needs, in nearly all cases a custom website is the more pragmatic option. Enhanced security, speed, business integration, and ease of use are the most obvious differentiators between premium and custom. Working with an expert developer allows you to customize the look of your website to meet branding standards, better connect your web presence with your core business, and stay current with best practices for digital marketing. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, choosing to hire a third-party for custom WordPress website development, instead of using a pre-built premium theme, removes the stress of launching a new website on your own. 

The primary reasons to not go with a custom designed WordPress website are: 

  • The new website is faced with budget limitations 
  • There is a need for an immediate site launch (no time for full development process) 
  • There is an expected lack of involvement from stakeholders, or if the site owner wants to have an active role in building and managing their WordPress site 
  • The site is going to be purely informational, or require only a few basic pages (ex: lead gen page, home page, contact form) 
  • The cost of hiring a web designer is prohibitive

At Sayenko Design we regularly work with clients who are looking to upgrade from a Premium Theme to a Custom WordPress Design. Some of the more common questions we get can be found on our FAQ’s page here.