Choosing a Theme for your Chamber of Commerce or Membership Association

Is a free theme right for your site?

If you are looking for a custom website design that is tailored specifically to your organization, we recommend working with a Professional Website Designer who can create a completely custom look for your site. However, there are plenty of WordPress themes on the market, both premium and free. If your design is flexible and can work within an existing theme, you can save your self a lot of money.

WordPress theme repo, TwentySeventeen

When you consider that a custom theme design can easily run upwards of $5,000 – $10,000, may make purchasing a premium theme for $50 – $60 a no-brainer. However, there can still be benefits to starting with a free theme and graduating to a premium version as you grow.

Free Themes vs. Paid Themes

There are literally thousands of themes out there.  If you are looking for a free theme, we strongly encourage you to ONLY use the WordPress Theme Repository (external link).  Unlike other sources, themes in the Repository have been reviewed and must meet the WordPress theme requirements (external link) before they can be included in the Repo.  Additionally, themes that are not regularly updated are removed from the list.

Free WordPress Themes

  • Basic Design – May have limited options to change settings.
  • Limited Features – Free themes support most standard WordPress features, but many do not include extras like creating buttons, using shortcodes, landing pages, etc.
  • Support is not always offered – Be sure to check the documentation before you start.
  • Theme author may stop supporting updates – Your website security may decrease if author stops updating the theme.
  • However, using a free theme is a great way to get started for free and learn as you go. Another benefit is that you can change your theme as your organization grows without having to build an entirely different site.

Please keep in mind that the reason that there are so many options for you to try out and learn with is that the WordPress ecosystem includes thousands of theme and plugin authors. Many of whom have released free, open source software for you to use.  We encourage you to support a healthy ecosystem. If you try out a free theme that doesn’t include everything you hoped for, please don’t leave a 1 star rating. Someone spent the time to build it. It might be just right for a different project. There are several thousand others.  Try a different one.

Premium WordPress Themes

  • Beautiful design – Keep in mind the design may look drastically different using your own images.
  • Purchase typically includes support – If you are new to setting up websites, access to support can be a critical to your success.
  • Premium themes offer more settings & customization options – They are also more complex and typically take a lot more setup time as well. However, a good premium theme should come with excellent documentation.
  • Lots of features – premium themes usually come with lots of cool features. However, if you don’t need them or the theme is poorly coded, the features may actually be slowing down your site’s performance.


Theme Layout

Keep things simple.  Fancy premium themes may offer a ton of features, but if you are not using them, they may be just slowing down your site. The goal of your site is that your visitors can easily find what they need and engage with your organization. The layout of your site should support this goal.

If your theme looks gorgeous, but does not help you grow your membership, then it is not the right choice for you.

Responsive – This is no longer an option. With 1/2 of all web page views coming thru a mobile device (external link), making sure that your site’s theme is mobile-friendly should be a top priority.  Pro Tip: Check out theme demo from your phone or use Google’s Mobile Friendly Test (external link).

Plan your layout – How much information do you need to have on your home page? How will you convey the benefits of joining your organization to potential new members?  When selecting a theme, it can be helpful to visualize where key content will appear within the theme. Pro Tip: Create a sitemap. Be sure to include notes about which content that will appear on each page. Use this as a reference to help you eliminate themes that won’t work before you are too invested in them. 

Branding Opportunities

Logo & Color Palette – Where will your logo show up on your site?  Check the Customizer to see the changes that the theme lets you to make such that you can incorporate your brand’s color palette, font, etc.

Images – It is important to consider how well the theme will allow you to represent your brand. For instance, if the theme is image-driven, in other words, relies on several high-resolution images in order to look professional, will your images work just as well?


Documentation – Documentation is included in the download for many themes.  Sometimes documentation can be found on the theme’s homepage.  Be sure to search around a bit to see if the documentation will be helpful to you.

Support Forum – Any theme in the repository (external link) has made it through the review process. This process is very rigorous so you can feel confident that themes will work properly.   Another benefit to using a theme from the repository is that most of the themes already have an active support forum.  Here you may find answers to your questions that others may have already asked about the theme, as well, you have the opportunity to ask your own questions.

Feedback & Reviews

WordPress theme reviewDownloads – If a theme has been downloaded a lot, this can be a good indication that it is a solid theme.

User Reviews – Another benefit of using a theme, is that you can check out all the user reviews. You can read for yourself the experiences other users have had with the theme.

Frequent Updates – Both the internet and the WordPress platform are constantly changing to keep up with new technology, security updates, etc.  Thus we can say for sure, your theme WILL need to be updated regularly.  It is a good idea to check to see when the last update to the theme was made.  If it was over 6 months ago, perhaps choose one that is more up-to-date.

How to Setup a Free Membership Site

One of the primary reasons we decided to build the Chamber Dashboard Plugin Series on the WordPress platform is that we know how hard it is for chambers, associations and other membership groups that are just getting started. WordPress gives you tons of low-cost options that you can then build on once your membership has started to grow. The WordPress ecosystem offers thousands of themes and plugins which let you add features or create a new design for your site as needed without having to completely migrate your site to a new platform.

In other words, starting with WordPress will save your Chamber a lot of future headaches!

Still unsure? Give it a try…

Voila!  Get your membership site up and running with everything you need to manage your members…no out-of-pocket cost to you.

A big part of the attraction to WordPress is the opportunity for customization. However, customization can be expensive. If your plan is to get started with a free theme and upgrade from there, we hope this guide will help you choose the best one for your organization!

Check out our Starter Sites Here

No need to start from scratch. Build your membership site in minutes.
Your choice of layout, install starter site content and you are ready to go!

Designed especially for use with Chamber Dashboard plugins.