Choosing the Best Free Theme for your Membership Site
This is a challenging task! There are thousands of free themes online these days. How will you narrow down the choices, avoid pitfalls and choose the theme that will make your membership site successful?
Plan Your Site Layout
Make some notes. Visualize what you want your site to look like, including which features and functions it should have. This will guide you through the rest of the site building process. You’ll want your site to be responsive across devices and of course your visitors will want it to load quickly.
Start with a sitemap. What pages will you include on your site? How will they be organized?
Check out some other sites you like the look of. If the site is built with WordPress, you can find out what theme they are using on wpthemedetector.com.
Many themes are designed around a niche, like blogging, business, e-commerce, restaurants, portfolios, etc. They are built with a focus on the features those niches need, for example a recipe theme may focus on ingredients and include a member submission plugin, whereas a magazine theme features recent news stories and might include a Google AdWords plugin. Niche themes usually include some elements, but may completely ignore others.
What is a Theme?
A theme gives you a color scheme, a design, an overall look and feel. It gives your site page layouts, usually a layout for your home page, blog page and interior pages are included.
If your website was a house, you could think of WordPress as the structure of the house, the walls, foundation, etc. The theme is the curtains, the color of the paint on the walls, the arrangement of the furniture.
What is a Plugin?
A plugin lets you add functionality to your site. For instance, will you offer online membership renewals? Will your site include a business directory? Do you need a calendar of upcoming events? It’s important to include the features you’d like to have in your plan, so that you can develop your overall site layout with them in mind.
If your website was a house, plugins might be used to add new features like air conditioning, or a back porch, or surround sound.
Find a Secure Theme
If you are determined to use a free theme, your best bet is to stick with a reputable source so that you know your theme is safe and malware free. We recommend limiting your search to the WordPress.org Theme Directory. The WordPress Theme Directory has an outstanding reputation. This is because all of the themes in the Directory have been thru a strict review process. In addition, themes using outdated code are regularly removed from the Directory, making this the safest place to find a free WordPress theme.
One way to check if your theme is secure, is to run it thru the Themecheck.org review tool. This will check the security and code quality of any WordPress theme you are considering.
Learn from other users. Another huge bonus to using themes from the WordPress Theme Directory is the built-in tools they offer to research your potential theme before you invest the time and energy of setup and customization.
Last Updated: Themes, like all other code on the web, can get stale. One of the best ways to keep both your theme and your site secure is to make sure they are regularly updated.
Active Installs: This is the number of people using the theme. The more people using the theme, the more likely the theme will be regularly maintained.
Ratings: Here you can read feedback from other users of the theme. This can give you valuable insight into whether the theme is right for your project.
[ Hint: 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. ]
Support: This is another treasure trove of information. Theme documentation can be found here, you can also review support posts to learn how the theme works, and you can also see how often support questions are answered.
Testing Theme Performance
Once you have narrowed down your search to a few themes that you think might work for your membership site, you can test the theme’s performance. How fast your website loads and whether or not it is responsive on mobile devices can play a huge roll in your site’s overall performance on search engine results pages (SERPs).
Hint: To test themes from the WordPress Theme Directory, you will first need to install the theme on your site.
An excellent tool that will give you valuable feedback on how fast your site loads is GTmetrix.com, once your site has been scanned, you can also see tips on how to improve your site’s performance. Be sure to run the scan again before launching your new site!
To check if a theme is mobile-friendly, you can use Google’s site-check tool. This will give you a good idea of how will perform when your visitors pull it up on their phone or iPad.
We know there are a lot of different types of membership sites. Even if you have chosen a theme in your niche, you will likely still want to add additional features and functionality to your site. It’s important to pay attention to whether the theme you have selected conflicts with any of the plugins you plan to use.
With so many themes and plugins available in the WordPress ecosystem, it is simply not possible for every theme to be compatible with every plugin. So it’s a good idea to check to make sure your go-to contact form, event calendar, SEO, business directory, ecommerce, and other favorite plugins will work with your new theme.
The most frequent complaint we hear about using free themes is that they don’t look like the demo when activated. This is true. Setting up a theme does take time and there can be a bit of a learning curve about how the theme works as well as how WordPress works.
We recommend checking the documentation first to see if it makes sense to you. If this is your first time installing and setting up a WordPress theme, we also recommend trying out more than one theme. This will give you a good feel for the various options and to get a better understanding of how different themes change the layout of your site.
For instance, if you are building a photo gallery site, one theme may give you four columns on the home page to link to member galleries, while another offers single hero image on the home page to engage your members.
So there you have it, 5 key steps to choosing a free WordPress theme:
- Make a plan for layout & sitemap
- Narrow down your niche
- Use a reputable source
- Research the options
- Test for theme and plugin compatibility