Color Inside the Lines
Any CMS theme is going to force the end user who is entering the content to run a paint by numbers routine; certain content areas will be editable at which point the website places them into a page at their designated places in the layout. The difference lies in who defined these content pieces or ‘coloring areas’, and what they had in mind while working through this process. In the case of a pre-built theme, it is safe to say that the original developer had no insight as to the unique needs of your business. At best you are going to get a generic style ‘tailored’ towards your industry with a few special features; but nothing custom to your specific practices and the niche in which you intend to grow.
The Short Game
The relative inflexibility yielded by a prefab theme is not necessarily a deal breaker. Sometimes it is enough, especially when you need something to go live in short order, or are just starting your web presence. To a point, pre-built templates are very cost effective as the learning curve surrounding their implementation is much lower than a custom built equivalent. Furthermore, inexperienced marketers might find comfort in the limited content areas. The ability to create a page that tells the user something like ‘my product entry should have a featured image, a blurb, and a price’ can take a lot of guesswork out of online marketing for a small business.
The Long Game
A dangerous disconnect occurs between the initial developer and the end customer (yourself) when a development team implements a prefabricated theme, placing a glass ceiling on the longevity of your website. This is especially true if you are growing quickly or have already surpassed the ‘small business’ denotation. Consider: when you need to break the mold of your existing layout, how familiar is your developer with the underlying markup and code that someone else wrote? If you need a new content area to elaborate on a product feature, how earth shattering are these changes going to be? Most dev teams will say what needs to be said to reassure you that they are capable of the task at hand, but more often than not this leads to a mess behind the scenes after a few revisions.
The trouble with growing from a pre-built theme is that you are often end up making additions that its foundation was never meant to support. In effect it allows your website to grow, but only in a very finite amount. Once you hit this ‘glass ceiling’ you are stuck with the options of forcing in additions that make maintenance an increasingly expensive, or a full on rebuild.
Where Budget is Concerned
Have no illusion, true customization can take time and money. We’re not talking about providers who offer ‘custom WordPress themes’ so long as you select from a finite list of pre-built templates. We are instead referring to the instances where your developers have to get knee deep in the code to accomplish something. The level of customization you require, and expect to require should dictate whether you are able to settle for a pre-built theme or require one built uniquely for you. Naturally, if you come across a prefab that fits your needs, spare a few photo swaps and color changes you are going to be saving a lot of money. As soon as your changes go beyond this threshold, (for instance, if you need a new editable content area) it is time to start weighing the pros and cons of a tailor built template.
Identify The Break Point
For any competent development team, there is always a crux point where building a theme from scratch takes the same amount, or less time than modifying an existing one. While this scale may not immediately tip in favor of a ground-up build, take care to consider the expected life span of the design, and the nature of your business. If for instance you specialize in a fast paced and competitive market, the flexibility afforded by building a theme unique to your needs will decrease turn around times when launching an online campaign. If you need to radically alter a part of your website to better advertise a new product; your developers intimate relationship with the template will make this vision a reality in a faster and cleaner fashion.
Like a car or an office building, your website is an investment for your business. As is the case with such investments, the least expensive option will typically cost you time, money, and frustration down the road. An experienced team will do their best to shield you from these complications, however the real difficulty can occur in unseen opportunity costs as you effectively overburden the foundation you built from. In considering factors such as the lifespan of your website and projected growth of your company, you help to avoid the crippling catch 22 where the evolution of your website is unable to keep pace with the growth of your business, and your business costs prohibit are rebuild of the website.
While this particular piece is geared towards WordPress themes, you may have gathered that most of the principles we covered apply to any prefabricated and/or purchased markup for use on a website. In fact, WordPress itself would be considered a pre-fabricated website in a slightly different regard, and despite its immense flexibility will provide its own glass ceiling depending on your application. While all of this might be a bit overwhelming, the intended takeaway is that you want to consider much more than the initial aesthetic of your website when creating or revising an online presence for your business. You’ll want select a development team that will pay close attention your unique needs, your trajectory and your budget in guiding you through this decision making process such that they can provide you with a well fit and robust solution.