WordPress is without a doubt the most popular content management system (CMS) in use right now, estimated to power 35% of all websites worldwide.
But having a place to manage your content is just the beginning, you also need the means to display it, be it pages, blog posts, headers, footers, sidebars, widgets, a search page, a 404 page, and so on.
In short, you need to create all the bits and pieces that make a website be a website. And if you’re like most of us (i.e. not IT pros) you'll want to achieve all of the above without having to write a single line of code.
This is where WordPress themes come to the rescue.
Disclosure: Although I receive affiliate compensation for some of the links below at no additional cost to you that compensation in no way influences my recommendations, which are strictly informed by my years of digital marketing experience working with clients large and small. My aim is to always recommend tools that will offer you the best return on investment.
For a good WordPress theme to excel, it needs to provide you with maximum design flexibility down to the pixel level, so you can create the perfect website for your needs.
You also want a theme with well-thought out conversion functionality so you can turn visitors into leads and leads into customers, while being able to integrate with popular email marketing tools and online shopping carts.
You need to look out for a theme that offers:
- Integration with popular online email marketing tools and platforms so that you can market to your visitors and convert them to leads
- Integration with popular eCommerce platforms, shopping carts and online payment processors so that you can monetize your visitors
- Functionality to present your visitors with well-placed offers, opt-ins, landing pages, lead magnets, upsell and downsell funnels, etc.
- Ability to A/B test as much of your marketing messages as possible (including post and page headlines, opt-ins, landing pages, lead magnets, upsell and downsell funnels, etc.)
- Ability to present your marketing messages in as many formats as possible, including pop-ups, slide-ins, screen fillers, scroll mats, ribbons, widgets, lightboxes, etc.
Based on your needs and your budget, the recommendations below address the above functionality, listed from the best theme overall, the best budget option, the runner up and the theme with the best freemium plan before monthly charges kick in.
Without a doubt, the current reigning champion of WordPress themes is Thrive Themes (this website was built using this theme).
In the past, Elegant Themes (the runner up) was in the lead, but since the launch of the Thrive Theme Builder in March 2020, they managed to leap-frog their way to the top.
What makes Thrive Themes unique is that it’s not just a theme, it’s an entire conversion-driven ecosystem that includes:
- A Theme Builder that gives you control to customize every aspect of your theme without forcing you to edit the theme code (which is common in many popular themes)
- A powerful graphical page editor (Thrive Architect) that allows you to edit all page elements down to the pixel level
- A best-in-class opt-in builder (Thrive Leads), with every possible opt-in format is use today (pop-ups, slide-ins, screen fillers, scroll mats, ribbons, widgets, lightboxes and in-content shortcodes), integrating with over 35 external systems (e.g. email marketing tools, social media platforms, marketing automation tools, webinar hosting platforms, etc.)
- An headline A/B testing plugin (Thrive Headline Optimizer) that allows you to test blog post headlines, keeping track of the winners and losers in real-time
- A best-in-class page-level A/B testing plugin (Thrive Optimize) that allows you to A/B test entire pages (e.g. different versions of a landing page triggered by an opt-in popup)
- A Learning Management System (Thrive Apprentice) that easily integrates with the most popular membership plugins to drip content to paid subscribers
- A scarcity-marketing plugin (Thrive Ultimatum) that allows you to introduce offers with countdown timers that lock down your offer after a specific duration
- A testimonial-management plugin (Thrive Ovation) that allows you to convert comments to testimonials and gather social-media testimonials automatically
- A powerful quiz plugin (Thrive Quiz Builder) that allows you to incorporate a gamification strategy to your lead generation mix to maximize conversions
- An enhanced commenting plugin (Thrive Comments) that builds on top of the default WordPress commenting feature, allowing you to gamify the process by adding up and down votes and badges
- A smart widget plugin (Thrive Clever Widgets) that allows you to include or exclude widgets from specific pages, posts, categories and tags, allowing you to target your visitors with context-based content that can be fine-tuned to maximize conversions
That’s a lot of firepower for a WordPress theme, and you can get all of the above for a monthly cost of under $20!
Thrive Themes funnels most of their revenue towards product development instead of marketing, so if this is the first time you’ve heard their name that’s the reason why.
But for the WordPress pros who are in the know, this is the go-to theme (I personally recommend it to all my clients—you just can’t beat their value proposition).
Thrive Themes Features that Stand Out for Online Earners
- Full-featured industry-leading theme builder
- Best in class lead-generation plugin with multiple opt-in formats and built-in A/B testing feature
- Advanced graphical page editor with control down to the pixel level
- Blog post headline-level A/B tester
- Landing-page-level A/B tester
- Learning Management System plugin to monetize subscribers with recurring payments through dripped delivery of content (built-in integration with membership plugins like MemberMouse or MemberPress for subscriber management and payment processing)
- Scarcity marketing features included
- Testimonial management included
- Lead generation can be enhanced with gamification strategy via smart quizzes
- Gamification-enabled commenting plugin with up and down votes and badges
- Context-based widget plugin
- Access to Thrive University, jam-packed with courses on how to get the most our of Thrive Themes
- All products are mobile responsive, allowing you to create three versions of every page, opt-in, widget, etc (desktop, tablet and smartphone)
- Last but not least, industry-leading value at under $20/month for the entire suite of products
Now the Cons...
- Customer support is mostly via knowledge base, although their online resources and videos are quite comprehensive and most times are sufficient to resolve any usage issues you may encounter. They do offer trouble ticket support as well, but the response time is rather slow—between 12-24 hours
- Some plugins, like Thrive Leads, will slow down your pages compared to cloud-based systems like Leadpages
- The shear number of products included in this suite means that you should expect to face a substantial learning curve, so you'll have to be patient before you can master the different features
Find Out More About Thrive Themes Here.
Best Budget WordPress Theme: Astra
If you’re on a budget, Astra may be the best WordPress theme for you. Designed with simplicity in mind—perfect for beginners—this theme is also lightweight and super fast to load.
The best part if you’re a WordPress beginner, is that they’re constantly creating pre-built starter websites for a wide range of applications (e.g. bloggers, restaurants, travel sites, eCommerce stores, therapists, dentists, etc.).
These are not one-page templates, they are fully functional websites with all the necessary pages, plugins and functionality necessary to operate in that business space. These starter websites can be made operational in just a few hours, not days or weeks.
While Astra is ideal for beginners, it’s fully customizable if you're more experienced in WordPress. You can customize colors, page layouts, footers, headers, backgrounds, fonts, etc. and its designs are responsive for mobile devices.
It also comes with advanced blog design and layout options.
Astra Features that Stand Out for Online Earners
- Lightweight and blazing fast
- Integrates seamlessly with most popular page builders, like Elementor and Beaver Builder
- It’s responsive for mobile devices
- It’s WooCommerce ready, allowing you to customize your product catalog, shopping cart and checkout page
- Extensive knowledge base
- Email support
- Large range of pre-built starter websites to save you layout time
- SEO friendly
Now the Cons...
- Not as feature rich as Thrive Themes, so additionally functionality can only be achieved by purchasing a large number of third-party plugins
- Not optimized for lead-generation and conversion—external plugins are required
- Starter sites are great for a speedy launch, but lack the flexibility of a proper theme builder like the one in Thrive Themes. In other words, if you find some useful features in one starter website and other useful features in another one, you can’t easily combine them.
Find Out More About Astra Here.
Best Runner-up: Elegant Themes
This is a powerful theme that has been adopted broadly in the WordPress community. Elegant’s top product is Divi with its Divi page builder (similar to Thrive Architect). They also have a secondary product called Extra, geared to online magazines and news sites.
In terms of customization and flexible design, Divi is comparable to Thrive. Where they fall short is in the area of add-on plugins, hence the reason they are the runner up. Elegant Themes currently offers only 3 plugins as part of their product mix.
The first one is Divi Builder, as mentioned above, with 45+ content modules plus a suite of selectors that give you complete command of the layout process so that you can create the perfect website design.
The second plugin is called Bloom Email Opt-in, which is the equivalent to Thrive Leads although not as advanced. Bloom email is a great solution for beginners but lacks some advanced features found in Thrive leads and other popular plugins, like Optinmonster.
For example, Bloom can integrate with 19 email providers and other platforms whereas Thrive Leads integrates with over 35.
The third plugin is called Monark Social Media, which adds social media sharing buttons to your pages and blog posts. This offers equivalent social functionality as popular plugins like AddtoAny.
Both Divi's and Extra's website templates are high quality. They currently offer 100+ complete website packs that can be imported into WordPress to get you going fast.
Elegant Themes Features that Stand Out for Online Earners
- Powerful page builder
- SEO friendly
- 100% mobile friendly
- Highly customizable. Complete control of your layouts down to the pixel level
- 24/7 like support via live chat and email
- 30-day money back guarantee
- High-quality ready-to-use templates
Now the Cons...
- Only 3 add-on plugins included in theme
- Missing many conversion features (must be added separately from other vendors for an additional cost)
- Bloom Email opt-in lead capture plugin not as advanced as Thrive Leads or Optinmonster
Find Out More About Elegant Themes Here.
Best Freemium WordPress Theme: Customify
If you’re looking for a free WordPress theme that's actually worth installing, look no further than Customify. Although they do have a paid version, if you have a simple website and you don’t require advanced marketing conversion functionality, Customify punches way above their weight.
In addition, the free version is WooCommerce compatible and has social linking included, which usually requires a separate plugin.
Even more surprisingly, they offer email support even for the free version, which is quite unusual, although their user documentation is already extensive and will answer most questions.
Customify Features that Stand Out for Online Earners (Free Tier)
- Although limited compared to paid themes, the free version is fully usable in the long term, without forcing you to upgrade to the paid version
- SEO optimized
- Lightweight and speedy
- Email support
- Responsive design for mobile
- 5 pre-built websites ready to import
Now the Cons...
- Limited number of available templates
- Very few marketing conversion mechanisms
- No free complementary plugins
- Limited in scope, but okay for simple website projects
- Feature-limited compared to paid themes
Find Out More About Customify Here.
What to Do Next
Even though your choice of theme comes after your selection of self-hosting services, this will be the most important decision of the two.
The reason is that while it's fairly straight forward to switch self-hosting providers if you're not happy with your initial choice (most offer free website migration), switching themes between vendors is an incredibly complex and expensive proposition.
So, take all the time you need to analyze each option to see which one best fits your needs and then make the leap and commit to that brand.
All of the above choices, Thrive Themes, Astra, Elegant Themes and Customify have been thoroughly vetted for your convenience, but if you choose to explore other options, make sure to read multiple reviews of each vendor before you press the go button.