How to create WordPress child themes that generate passive income
My name is Melissa Love and I’m a web designer who has been making all of my income from selling WordPress child themes for Divi and Elementor for the past five years, through my online store. It’s taken a lot of hard work to get here but it’s given me the freedom to create the kind of work / life balance that I was craving and escape the pressure of juggling one-to-one client projects.
If you’ve been toiling away at the coalface of serving web design clients on a one-to-one basis for a while, then I’m sure you’ll have heard the seductive calling of the ‘passive income’ path to riches.
I feel you.
I’m a web and brand designer who was seriously niched down to a specific type of client.
I worked exclusively with photographers and I can tell you, after ten solid years, I was BURNT OUT. (There are only so many ways you can reimagine the word ‘photography’ in a logo.)
Chances are, just like me, when you first started web designing, you bought some themes from Themeforest, and started trying to make the theme you’d bought match your client’s vision without feeling like you’d sold your soul to the devil.
You tried all of the big themes, Avada, Flatsome, Enfold…
Then came page builder freedom…
You discovered…Divi, Elementor, Beaver Builder…
Suddenly you could build anything you could dream of and you could save layouts and sections to use and re-use again. And you started thinking…
“This site is awesome…other people could benefit from my design genius…
I could resell this layout many times over and buy a yacht.”
Enter…your passive income dream.
I’ve got good news and bad news
The good news
- Providing great design at relatively low cost is incredibly rewarding.
- You do get PayPal notifications when you’re at the beach (disclaimer: you actually have to go to a beach).
- Over time, you develop a regular income which you can rely on (unless you don’t do the hard work first – more about that later).
The bad news
- It takes quite a while to build an audience and develop a reputation.
- There is a lot of set up to do – from support docs to installation scripts.
- You’ll need to write a lot of tutorials and walkthrough videos.
- You will get a lot of support tickets from people who don’t know even know the basics about using WordPress and you’ll just have to suck it up.
- You’ll need to find a technical solution for one-click installation and pushing updates.
- If you don’t like paying attention to detail, you’ll hate selling pre-designed products.
- It will take you ages to buy a yacht.
Where to Start
Conducting Research & Choosing Your Niche
I don’t like to brag (ok, maybe just a tiny bit, but I was the first person to sell a ‘child theme’ for the Divi platform). That might mean nothing to you, but if you’re reading this article, then I’m betting you’ve at least heard of Divi and Elegant Themes.
Now a whole industry has grown up around the Divi theme. Obviously that would have happened anyway, but I’m proud to have forged the path, and I can tell you that I have a great relationship with the team at Elegant Themes (and with the other WordPress platforms I design for – Elementor and ProPhoto).
The point I’m trying to make is that there is no barrier to entry. If your work is good, you can sell it.
Become a platform specialist
It’s tempting to think that you can design themes for every platform.
You can, but it’s going to take some time. My best advice is to focus on one platform at a time, like Divi or Elementor, so that you can perfect your workflow and your export process and support system, before you expand.
Why? Because there is a lot of brand specific marketing to do, from platform leaders to Facebook groups. If you are releasing something new and you believe in it, make sure you call in every favour you can before you dilute your offer. Even more importantly, platform owners and community leaders will appreciate it if you focus your efforts on their platform.
Do the research
The themes that sell the best are laser-focused.
You need to make sure you have an ideal client or at the very least, a niche that you’re focused on.
General ‘businessy’ themes are much harder to market – in search, in paid ads and in your chosen theme community.
I’ve been focused exclusively on photography themes for the last five years, and niching down to one industry has allowed me to build a reputation as a specialist and an expert, and given me a platform as a regular speaker at trade events and as a guest blogger and magazine column writer.
If you’re coming from a one-to-one client background, now is the time to reach out to past ideal clients and find out what they loved about your work and what they wish they could easily do on their own.
In my own community, I regularly share my Pinterest boards for the themes I’m working on to spark interest and get feedback. I also ask my audience to nominate special features that they would like to see.
Build your reputation as a specialist
Plan your theme first
To get a much better end result
The biggest piece of advice I can give you, is NOT to dive into WordPress, fire up your page builder and start designing. If you skip the vital research and planning steps, you’ll end up with an inconsistent theme that doesn’t sell well.
Why do people buy themes?
It’s important to remember that people buy child themes or layout packs for two reasons:
- To save time
- Because they lack professional design skills, either in terms of graphic design ability or technical web design skills.
If you create a theme or design that lacks cohesion and attention to detail, you may find yourself receiving complaints and failing to generate repeat purchases.
Whenever I have been tempted to skip the planning stage because I have new design in mind that I am burning to create, invariably I find myself having to go back to the beginning of the the process I’m about to outline to you.
We’ve already talked about choosing a niche. At this stage you want to be getting even more specific and designing with an ideal client in mind. When they view your demo site, you want them to be able to picture your theme as the perfect solution – like a jacket they can slip on knowing that it will fit like a glove … as if it was created with them in mind.
Branding matters. When I’m planning a new theme, my visual research starts with compiling a mood board, over time, in Pinterest. I follow a specific set of guidelines every time, which you can read about here.
From the Pinterest board, I then move into the brand design phase. Even if I am creating a web design solely for sale, I still create brand guidelines to ensure that I have a clear road map to keep me on track when I’m designing every single page.
It also gives me the foundation for my Theme Options and Customizer settings areas in terms of typography, font size and colourways.
Create a Site Plan
I like to start with a site plan, which can be as simple as a list of pages and how they link together. In addition, I like to sketch out the flow and plan the calls to action on every page.
It’s important to plan your menu to really show off your theme. Unlike a client site, your theme’s menu needs to have direct links to any hidden pages as well as the pages you wouldn’t usually find in the main menu. eg. Links to your single post layout and to an archive or category page.
Wireframe Your Home Page
Wireframing simply means planning out your home page visually. It doesn’t have to be complicated.
I start by grabbing a pencil and paper and sketch out the various blocks of the home page. If it’s a long page, sometimes I tape two pieces of A4 paper together. See what I mean about low tech?
Not only can you use it for wireframing (there are lots of free wireframe templates you can download), it’s the perfect free tool for actually building out your home page before moving into WordPress. I tend to roughly sketch my wireframe with a pen and paper, then move into Figma, to set up my fonts, colours and H tag sizes, in keeping with my brand guide.
Some of you will feel confident enough to move straight into WordPress and skip the Figma mock-up stage and that’s fine, as long as you are sticking to your brand guide. But I love having the freedom to play on a canvas, without worrying about grids, sections and rows. I find I’m more likely to create an original design when I work with a tool like Figma.
Not only is Figma a design tool, it also creates vectors ready to export as png or svg files, as well as creating any css you might need to swipe.
Nail Your Workflow To Make Repurposing Easy
The perfect home page is your foundation
We’re all used to starting every build with the home page. Getting it pixel-perfect is very important because your home page should be the foundation of every other page in your theme.
All of the brand elements you are planning to use in the theme – colours, fonts and graphic elements need to be present in some form on the home page. There should be no design ‘surprises’ later as you go deeper into the site.
Now is the time to make decisions about font sizes, layout styles and calls to action and test them hard at every break point. Once you’re happy that your home page is rock solid on every device, you can take sections of the home page and quickly expand them out to create complete page layouts, safe in the in the knowledge that your design choices and responsive behaviours won’t need re-editing. There is nothing worse than having to go back through every single page, editing the same item again and again, because you didn’t take enough time with the home page in the first place.
Save your layouts to the cloud
Let’s assume that you have some success with your first theme and you’re ready to add a new theme to your collection. With some pages (eg. blog, contact, single post), there is no need to
re-invent the wheel. I often repurpose simple layouts again and again between different themes.
Add Value To Your Theme
Create features that solve a problem for your customer
Remember our earlier promise? To help people design a website faster or better? Before you fully dive into creating your theme, take a moment to list the biggest likely pain points for your theme’s ideal client.
More research means more sales
Here’s an example. I’m currently designing a new theme for coaches and course creators. I conducted a poll in my free Facebook group and in some dedicated course creator groups, to find out which features they struggle with the most.
Here’s what they said:
- Don’t know which LMS (course plugin) to use
- Not sure what to include on the home page
- Don’t know how to make a sales page look good
- How to embed a podcast
- Not sure how to set up the marketing pages for a lead magnet
So of course, in my theme, I’m going to make sure that I include all of those features, and also make sure the training videos and documentation fully explain the strategy behind how I use those features. This will give your end user the confidence to understand which parts of your theme they can customize further and which parts are important to keep as they are.
Include Design Assets
It always surprises me when I find out that people have bought a theme in order to use some of the design assets, like illustrations. If you are including a graphic or illustration, then do include them as a low res version, or at least make them available as an additional purchase.
I have developed relationships with several illustrators and font makers, who allow me to license their products for distribution with a theme in a web res format or as a web font, as long as I share links to where the full product can be purchased.
Create An Image Guide
One of the most disappointing experiences a customer can have, is when they begin to replace your beautiful placeholder images with their own.
In my documentation, I like to create a short video guide that explains why I’ve chosen specific images for areas of the page, for example, choosing an image with negative space or using a black and white image.It will help your customers make good image choices which will complement the theme’s style and features.
Do also include a written guide to the image sizes / dimensions you use and why, as well as a tutorial which explains how to compress images correctly for the web and any apps or plugins you use or recommend to do this.
Share your knowledge generously to create loyalty
Create a workflow from the very beginning to protect you and your customer
Sticking to legal best practice is incredibly important. If you take a risk with a font, image or graphic not being properly licensed for distribution, you might find yourself stuck with a hefty bill further down the line. The fines for distributing intellectual property are far greater than when you use an asset in your own site. It’s also disrespectful to other digital artists. Unless we support each other by respecting licensing guidelines, no one can have a profitable business.
Including Premium WordPress Products
On that note, I’d also strongly recommend never distributing premium WordPress themes or plugins, like Divi or Elementor with your child themes.
EULA stands for End User License Agreement and when it comes to fonts, you need to be 100% confident that you have bought the right license for digital product distribution. Most premium fonts don’t allow distribution without an extended license and some don’t allow redistribution at all.
These days, you’ll also find that you’ll need to purchase a web font license in addition to a desktop license. I know plenty of digital vendors who’ve been stung with big retrospective bills for unauthorised font usage. Personally, I stick to Google fonts or 100% free / Creative Commons fonts when it comes to theme design.
You won’t be surprised to hear that you also need to take care when distributing images. Even if you distribute images with the intention that those images are only used as placeholder images, chances are that at least some of your customers will leave some of the stock images in place.
Even if those images are being displayed because the file path points back to your demo site, you may still be liable. I would recommend only ever using completely free stock image sites, like Unsplash, to source images.
I know plenty of designers and even DIY website builders who have been hit with big charges for unauthorised image usage after pulling an image off Google or not checking the rights.
If you are planning to sell in other marketplaces, you might find that those marketplaces have even stricter requirements when it comes to image sourcing.
For example, Elegant Themes will only permit images that are licensed under GPL V2 (as is WordPress) to be included in their marketplace. There is a full list of approved image resources for Elegant Themes marketplace submissions, which you can find right here.
If you really can’t break away from Unsplash images, there are export tools I’ll be recommending that can replace your images with placeholder on export.
Source your images responsibly to avoid expensive mistakes
Even if you’re not an SEO hotshot, it’s important to have a really good understanding of Google-friendly page architecture. Once your customer has finished customizing your theme, their thoughts will definitely be turning to SEO and you want to make sure that you aren’t causing them extra work at this stage.
There are plenty of fantastic SEO courses you can take, and I’d recommend doing that, but at a minimum, you need to make sure that you properly structure the Heading tags you use throughout a page.
According to Google themselves, “We do use H tags to understand the structure of the text on a page better” (John Mueller – Google 2015)
Heading tags (or H tags) tags are HTML markup which denote headings. There are six levels of heading with H1 being the most important and H6 as the least important. H tags are generally used to help make a page more visually readable but also to help Google and other search bots to make sense of your pages.
In general, here are the guidelines you should stick to.
- H1 – use once on the page for your main page heading.
- H2 – use for section headings
- H3 – use for subsections
- H4 – use for sidebar and footer links
- H5 & H6 – can be used for styling purposes
If you’re selling a theme rather than a collection of layouts, you’ll want to make it as easy as possible to for your customers to change colours and font styles globally, rather than on module by module basis.
Where possible, set global colours, fonts, line heights and fonts sizes for each H tag and for each device break point. Depending on the theme or page builder you’re using, you can usually do this in either the Theme Options or Customizer settings area.
Once your global settings are in place, if you can avoid overriding global settings whenever possible.
Adding Extra Features
I know you’re going to want to make sure your themes stand out in a crowded market, but often it’s the beautiful design rather than extra bells and whistles that will help sell a theme.
If you are just starting out with designing child themes, be selective about adding extra functionality via editing or adding php files, unless you really know what you’re doing.
Parent themes very often restructure their php files or make your own php edits redundant as they add new features. In addition, unless you are prepared to maintain theme versions using a system like Github, you’ll be unable to deliver updates and you may end up having to help many people remove or edit redundant files or themes.
If there is some must-have functionality you need, in most cases, it’s easier to use a free plugin from the WordPress repository and style it with some simple CSS.
CSS or no?
It’s tempting to bash out a bit of CSS and stick it in a module instead of using native functionality in your chosen theme or page builder. If you do use CSS, use it as sparingly as possible on the page.
I prefer to assign custom classes to section, row or module and add CSS to the Customizer or Theme Options area. This means that you’ll be able to update your themes much more easily, if you need to eliminate any redundant CSS and it also makes it easier to see all of your CSS at a glance.
You’ll thank me when you’re trying to troubleshoot a customer’s support ticket!
Top tip: make sure you annotate your CSS with coded out headers. Eg. /*REVERSE COLUMN ORDER ON MOBILE*/
Preparing to Export Your Theme
Do an Sanity Check and Seek Feedback
As you near the end of your theme build, it’s easy to get over-excited and rush straight to the exciting part – putting it on sale. Once I’ve finished, I like to send a preview out to my audience inviting feedback. It’s the final sanity check you need, to ensure you are on track, and it also helps generate excitement for your upcoming product launch.
Save all of your layouts to the theme or plugin library
You might be planning to install your demo pages complete with layouts already installed but your end user needs options. Some customers will be adding your theme to an existing site and won’t want to import your demo pages and blog posts.
Instead they will want to load them from the theme or plugin library. Eg. Divi stores layouts in the Divi Library and Elementor includes a template library.
And of course, customers will make mistakes during the customization process and want to start again, so making sure that there is a pristine copy in the library will cut down on support tickets and requests for replacement layouts.
Check Your Image Sizes
Keeping your image file sizes as small as possible is vital when it comes to making sure your theme is easy to install.
Large theme files are more prone to timing out during the install process because you’ll find that cheap shared hosting often limits the size of the files that can be uploaded via the media, theme or plugin area.
Asking your customer to either access their cPanel or open a support ticket in order to increase permitted file size is a headache you really don’t need.
Clean Up Your Media Library
At the very least, you’re likely to be exporting all of the images in your layouts, if not your demo site’s entire media library. When you’re in the thick of designing, it’s easy to get carried away and upload multiple versions of graphic and images and then forgot to delete them, creating bloat and an an oversized theme file.
Before you prepare to export your theme, purge your media library of any files not being used in the theme.The good news is there is a great batch-checking tool which I’ll recommend shortly.
Packaging Your Theme
Create a one-click install process that is easy to use
For a child theme to REALLY feel like a fully featured theme, then the install process needs to be really slick and needs to be initiated with just one click from you end user. Before we go too much further, it’s important to understand what’s actually included in a child theme.
Assuming you aren’t going to include any additional php files, your child theme will only contain a stylesheet, a functions.php file and a pretty screenshot which will show up in the Appearance > Themes area.
The child theme itself typically doesn’t include the pages, posts, menus, media, layouts and settings of your parent theme or page builder – those are stored in the WordPress database. But a great install process bundles all of the above together and installs them at the same time as your child theme is installed. Ideally, the installer will then be able to be removed to make sure that it doesn’t pose an on-going security threat.
The functions.php method or installer plugin?
There are two ways of creating a slick auto-install process. There are plenty of scripts out there which you can adapt and add to your child theme’s functions.php file, to do things such as require plugin installation but you’ll probably need to work with a developer to also package up your layouts, settings, demo content etc.
However, I’ve found that leaving that installer code in the functions.php often results in code errors over time, leaving you once again with support tickets and the problem of how to help your non-techy customers remove redundant files.
The theme packaging plugin for Divi and Elementor
I now use a plugin called, SitePresser, which I co-own and which was specifically created to solve this problem. SitePresser packages up all of your demo content, settings, child theme and recommended plugins into a single uploadable plugin file, which can be easily uninstalled by your customer at the end of the installation process.
In addition, you can white-label SitePresser with your own logo, copy and documentation to create a really slick user experience. Most importantly, it’s a completely modular process, meaning that you can pick and choose what you’d like to export and also give your end user the same options on import, so that they don’t have to import the demo page and posts, for example.
SitePresser’s Batch Checking Tools
SitePresser also includes batch checking tools to make the whole pre-export process easier.
The built-in design tools can:
- Bulk check your image file sizes and flag up any large files for you to compress
- Flag up any unattached images and allow you to bulk delete them from the media library
- Allow you to upload placeholder images and replace all of the images you have used in the theme with your placeholder images.
- This means that you can design your theme with the beautiful images you love and also make sure that the design they import has a similar look and feel.
What To Include In The Download
When you’re selling a digital package, you’ll often want to include design assets and instructions as well as the installable file.
You have two options when it comes to creating your download package. You can upload your installable file separately to the other items or you can zip up everything together.
I prefer to zip everything up together, because then I can be sure that every person will see all of the included components, including the instructions doc which links through to my documentation.
TOP TIP: Create really really obvious names for any file or folder that you choose to include in your download.
For example, my main download is always called UNZIP ME – Name of Product.
My instructions file is called READ ME FIRST.
Of course, you will still get a number of people trying to upload the whole zip into their themes area, but not often enough to be a real headache.
Provide First Class Support
Put the hours in now to avoid support tickets later on
Building out comprehensive support documentation is really boring. Believe me – I know!
But putting in the time upfront is going to save you hours upon hours once you officially launch your product and want to spend your time promoting it, instead of repeatedly fixing the same misunderstandings. From the beginning, you’ll need to choose your attitude to support and embrace your mindset accordingly.
For example, when I launched my first range of theme products, I was determined to only answer questions relating to using my actual products, but the reality was that 95% of the questions were related to general WordPress usage and how to use the parent theme and NOT to the relatively small role my products played in their experience.
How I Learned To Love Support Tickets
I quickly grew to resent the relentless questions and I couldn’t understand why people weren’t reading the documentation properly and learning about WordPress and Divi or Elementor, before contacting me. It wasn’t until I realised that teaching people to feel in control of their website was something I was truly passionate about, that I began to really embrace support tickets as an opportunity to help and teach.
In fact, we now pride ourselves on our support so much that it’s become a significant source of sign ups for our membership site, which teaches people how to build their own website. If you learn to embrace support as a lead generator, you’ll enjoy dealing with the questions.
Before you dive into documenting every product individually, I’d recommend deciding in advance, which steps will apply to all of your products, and produce a dedicated global introduction to your family of products.
In my own documentation, I also include general advice and training on WordPress, as well as linking out repeatedly to the extensive documentation for the parent theme.
Use A Support Ticket System
I’ve set my support area up as a sub domain and built it out on WordPress, but you could choose to sign up with a help desk system and use the included Wiki. It’s up to you. If aesthetics are important to you, you might want to use the page builder you know and love and just embed a form which links to your ticket system.
If you’re thinking a ticket system sounds way more complicated than you need at this stage, you couldn’t be more wrong. Both Freshdesk and Zendesk, the big players, offer free or very low cost options and they allow you to see at a glance which tickets are outstanding and also allow you to quickly deploy canned responses for the questions you get asked repeatedly.
If you achieve the kind of success you’re dreaming of, in time you’ll need to get someone to help you answer support tickets, and having a system in place is going to make training someone way easier.
Start A Facebook Group
One of the best accidental decisions I made was to open a free Facebook group in order to keep in touch with my customers. I thought they’d appreciate a shared space to get updates about WordPress and pick up top tips.
Over time, the group became an important first port of call for resolving issues and I know that it significantly reduces the number of support tickets we receive. Most importantly, over time, it’s become one of the single biggest source of conversion to being a paid customer.
It’s where I conduct research, freely give help to people who haven’t bought yet and engage on an informal basis with my community. Start your group early and give information generously.
Use Your Blog As A Resource
You’ll find that having a good archive of blog tutorials that you can link to, will also help reduce or resolve the amount of support tickets you receive.
Well written and thorough blog posts can also be huge sources of traffic. If you take the time to create posts that are more comprehensive and relevant than other articles on the internet, chances are you’ll rise to the top of the search results.
I wrote an article on ‘how to add an Instagram feed to your website’ and it’s been the number one result on Google, after the sponsored posts, for the past year and it brings me over 10,000 unique visitors per month. Feel free to Google it!
Where To Sell
Your website and other marketplace opportunities
Before you choose where to sell, you need to really decide if you want to choose a higher-priced lower-volume specialist approach or embrace a lower-cost volume approach.
I’ve stuck to selling to my niche through a limited number of specialist marketplaces, but I do have plans to release a lower cost volume product under a different brand.
Both approaches are valid but I’d advise you to concentrate on one route to market at a time.
Here are your options…
Build Your Own Online Store
The most obvious place to start is building your own online store. If you’re selling into the WordPress market, the best option is to choose WooCommerce or Easy Digital Downloads.
Both are relatively easy to use and have a wizard-based install to fast track you through the setup.
I’ve found that WooCommerce gives the most flexibility because it enables you to sell a mixed basket of products. Eg. a downloadable theme, an online course, an event ticket and shippable merchandise, all in the same transaction. It offers lots of options in terms of payment gateways. I’ve found that offering PayPal and Stripe together gives the highest conversion rates.
Even if you don’t think you need that option when you’re starting out, if you’re successful, you’ll need that flexibility eventually so you might as well lay the foundations now. If you’d like to swipe my free WooCommerce layouts for Divi and understand how it works with all page builders, head over to my training website and snag enrol for my free course.
If you’re daunted by building your own online store, one of the best ways to get started is to list your themes with a specialist marketplace for your page builder or parent theme, like Elegant Marketplace or the soon-to-be-launched Elegant Themes marketplace.
In exchange for commission (30% is standard), then you’ll benefit from joint marketing campaigns and access to a much wider audience.
The Heavy Hitters
The commissions are still roughly 30% but you’ll find prices are much more competitive because less specialist marketplace websites will attract customers who don’t value your platform’s specialist skills and who are more likely to be driven by cost.
You may also find (particularly with Envato) that you need to comply with specific image and code restrictions and re-upload your support docs to their portal as well as using their own support ticket system.
If you aren’t prepared to monitor pre-sale and support questions across multiple marketplaces, this may not be the route to market for you.
Ready to Get Started?
Your theme business is waiting for you…
I’ve been making the majority of my business revenue from selling child themes for the last five years so I can tell you that it certainly works. But I can also tell you that the ‘passive income dream’ also involves a lot of continuous work. It’s not an easy shortcut to great riches.
Sure, it’s on your terms, but it’s ongoing and your commitment to improving your themes, your documentation, your marketing systems and your community will have a direct and significant impact on your success.
My top tip is to embrace the parts of the process that you enjoy the least. Hate documentation? It’s a chance to reduce support tickets. Hate updating themes? It makes sure even your oldest designs keep earning for you. In short, creating and selling any kind of theme can bring you the kind of freedom that brings you PayPal notifications whilst you’re at the beach, but it’s a long game.
Commit to being thorough and to really caring for your customers and you’ll make it in the theme sales world.
Want to hang out with other web designers and theme sellers?
No, you cannot. Distributing Divi as part of a theme for sale contravenes the terms of the Divi license. You can install Divi on an unlimited number of clients sites that you build, but you may not distribute Divi as part of a sale.
No, you can’t. As with Divi, distributing Elementor as part of a theme for sale contravenes the terms of the Elementor license.
Yes, absolutely. Some people prefer to do this because it eliminates the child theme creation step. Personally, I prefer creating child themes because I feel most people are looking for a more complete solution when building their website but I do sell layout packs as add-ons.
There is no upper limit to what you can charge but the price point you settle on will largely be determined by the market you are in and how niched down you are. More specialist designs (for example e-commerce or e-learning) will command a premium.
We recommend using our plugin, SitePresser. SitePresser was developed specifically to package Divi and Elementor child themes. SitePresser gives your end user a simple, elegant and fully-branded one-click install experience.