One of the best things about WordPress is its ability to easily adapt into any shape you like. Building an ecommerce site? WordPress will work. Directory site? WordPress can do it. Membership site? Absolutely. In addition to WordPress’ own incredible flexibility, there are a large number of premium themes that are specifically designed for these types of tasks. While you can – with a little knowledge – bend any WordPress installation to your will and create a variety of fully customized sites, it does take some skill. If you don’t have the time or inclination to learn about custom post types, custom fields, and the like, it’s just easier to buy a theme with these functions built in.
Optimize Press is a specialty theme built to house a membership site. Toward that end, it has an incredible number of custom functions that make structuring a membership site fast and easy. You can set up a sales page, build a beautiful log-in form, add modules and lessons, and be up and running in less than a day.
Of course, Optimize Press – like any premium theme – comes with its own learning curve.
A membership site has three needs: a squeeze page for collecting names and email addresses, a sales page for enticing paying customers, and a membership area where customers can retrieve their lessons. Optimize Press covers all three of these areas separately. You can use different headers on the sales page and opt-in pages, different navigation bars for the members’ pages, and even different backgrounds, fonts, and colors for each.
Optimize Press is not a membership script, but it is designed to work with the most popular solutions, like Digital Access Pass, Wishlist, S2member, and Nanacast. Optimize Press also integrates easily with email managers like Aweber through its squeeze pages. The built-in video module allows you to add a video player using YouTube, Vimeo, or a number of other video solutions.
Creating a members’ area is as simple as adding module and lesson pages. When your users log in, they’ll see a sidebar on the left that includes every module and lesson in your site, making it easy to navigate from one section to another. Unfortunately, this helpful feature is lacking in one area: customization. You have no control over which pages are listed in this sidebar, since Optimize Press is generating it automatically. To prevent pages from appearing here, you’ll need to add a plugin such as “Exclude Pages.”
Another disappointment with Optimize Press is the page-focused nature. Optimize press is designed to be used with pages, not posts, so if you’re looking for a blog, you’d do better to choose another theme.
Premium Press has perhaps the best selection of themes available for specialty sites. Using their themes, you can easily create an online business directory, an ecommerce site, a coupon site, or even an online auction site.
Like many of the other premium theme sites, Premium Press provides fantastic customer support via their forums, where you’ll find the answers to most of your questions. If you get stuck, they also have a very responsive ticket system. Each theme comes with a getting started guide including videos to help you navigate the interface.
Some, like Directory Press and Auction Press, are designed to help you earn money by selling listings on your site.
The themes come with several shopping cart solutions already integrated, so you don’t have to worry about setting up your cart. Some of the supported payment gateways include PayPal, Authorize.net, 2Checkout, and Google Checkout. If you already have an account with any of those providers, setting up your payment processing is as easy as entering a couple of API keys.
Other themes in the Premium Press lineup include Employee Press for building a job board, Classifieds Theme to build a niche ad site, Shopping Cart Theme to sell digital or physical goods, and Real Estate Theme for home listings.
Each theme is customized specifically for the market, so you’ll have trouble if you try to take an established site and update it to a Premium Press theme, but if you’re starting a site from scratch, you can save a lot of time and energy – not to mention frustration – by opting for a Premium Press theme right from the beginning.
One thing that’s lacking in the Premium Press themes is integration with email management systems like Aweber or Constant Contact. Instead, all email is handled via WordPress, which, if you have a busy site, could cause your deliverability to suffer.
iThemes Builder is the latest generation of premium themes, and offers some impressive features to support both developers as well as site owners with little knowledge of or desire to learn the finer points of php and html. Developed by the makers of BackupBuddy, this theme framework has a solid team behind it, and comes with a good support system.
Unlike the other premium themes we’ve looked at, iThemes Builder has two distinct options: pre-built child themes you can tweak, and a completely blank slate you can customize as you like. While that might sound a lot like Studiopress, there is a major difference. iThemes Builder comes with a visual drag-and-drop interface where you can add “modules” such as widgets, sidebars, and header sections.
Themes are created using two tools: the layout engine and the style manager. With the layout engine, you’ll be able to easily move your sidebar, add a footer, or change the size of your header. As you add each component, the final layout will appear on the right side of the screen, so you can know immediately if you’ll like it. Once the layout is complete, switch to the style manager to customize colors, fonts, graphics, and more.
All the heavy lifting is done behind the scenes, and all you need to do is point and click. You can create a simple blog with a single page structure, or a complicated ecommerce site with many page styles and customizations. All without ever so much as looking at the code.
If you find all the choices overwhelming – and you might – then you have the option of starting with a child theme template and customizing only the pieces you want. You’re free to change just the colors, fonts, and header if you like, or you can use the child theme as a starter to make an entirely different looking site.
Unlike other premium themes, iThemes Builder is licensed on a yearly basis, which means if you want to continue using it, you’ll need to purchase it every year. Of course the themes you build with it will continue to work even if you don’t renew your license, but you won’t be able to build any new themes (or make changes to existing ones). This last point is a sticky one for the pragmatic designer.
iThemes Builder does not work with other themes. You can NOT use it to customize Studiopress themes, for example, or change the layout of a free theme. But if you’re looking to build a totally unique theme, or need to easily create a site with custom page templates, iThemes Builder might be a good solution for you.