Website Content vs Theme: Make Sure You Have Them in the Right Order

This post, featuring an interview with Otto (Samuel Wood), offers some interesting advice and information on using WordPress in general, but a few points resonate in particular with me regarding content.

In my former role at an ad agency and in my current role as a Happiness Engineer at Automattic, I’ve come to believe that most folks have things in the wrong order in terms of theme and content when getting a site up and going.

In short, content is the thing.

It’s what will ultimately bring people to your site and more importantly, keep them coming back. That’s not to say that the visual aspect isn’t important, or that certain theme features don’t complement content, but content should drive the theme, not vice versa.

Otto says:

What do you think is the biggest mistake a newbie might make when starting with WordPress?

Buying a commercial theme before they have a site up and running. People focus on the look of the site too much, and many commercial themes sell themselves based on some set of features. But until you have a site going, and have content, and have readers, you don’t really know what you need.

Very few people who buy a commercial theme end up finally using that theme for the final product. A better approach is to use a free theme instead, and switch later if you need to do so. I’m not running down commercial themes here, but you’ll be in a much better position to evaluate a commercial theme based on your needs once you actually know what those needs really are.

Your site doesn’t have to look perfect on day one. Change over time keeps people coming back to see what changed. Get that content written, and get those readers reading. That’s what you need to do right off the bat.

While at the ad agency, I saw clients make that mistake a lot. They would find a theme they liked and then try to fill in the boxes and fit their content into the spaces provided. It’s a far better approach to spend some upfront time thinking about what you want to say and how you want to organize it and present it. Then, look for a theme that has a layout and features that best fit your vision.

And really, Otto is right. Until you have content or have thought about how you want to present it, how do you know what features you’ll need? You don’t.

This usually creates rework. Once you get going with content, you may find your theme – the one you spend so much time, effort, and money to buy, customize, and tweak – isn’t really what you want.

I think Otto is spot-on with this advice as well:

For someone who has just started using WordPress, what is your words of wisdom?

Focus on a specific thing you want to do, and do that. Too often I see people starting out and getting overwhelmed with the scope of the project. They want to change the way their site looks, design themes, use plugins, and everything else except actually writing content.

For a blogger or publisher, the content is more important than anything else, and the “look” of the site is really somewhat irrelevant by comparison. Yes, you can make the site look any way you like, but if you don’t have a regular stream of posts going to it, then making it look good or putting that big image slider up isn’t the most valuable use of your time.

Focus and prioritize. Get that content stream working right before trying to figure out that minor little thing that bothers you about the theme.

I’ve seen this quite a bit too. He’s right – it is easy to get overwhelmed exploring all of the options and adding bells and whistles, but again, it’s about your content.

Sometimes, I think all of this is a procrastination method for people who are hesitant to write, aren’t sure what to say, or are perhaps self-conscious about sharing their writing.

Theme shopping and customization, playing with plugins, and the rest of it are ways to feel like you’re working on your site (and you are) without doing perhaps the hardest and most personal work: creating content.

So folks, do yourself a favor and put the cart where it belongs – after the horse. Get that content going first, think about what you want to say, how often you want to say it, and how you want to organize and present it. Then consider what design elements or features will help your visitors most easily navigate your site to find the content they’re looking for.

Then, go theme shopping.

After all, what good is a pretty site if no one looks at it?

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