What it Takes to Build for Success on the Shopify Theme Store — Shopify App Development (2021)


2021 is a big year for Shopify themes. 

Alongside the exciting announcements at Shopify Unite and the release of Online Store 2.0, which includes new theme architecture, flexible data storage with metafields, and new developer tools, the Shopify Theme Store is now also open for submissions! 

As opportunities within the Shopify ecosystem continue to expand, many partners will be looking to further their Shopify-related service offerings. The latest option among the myriad services partners can provide for merchants is the ability to submit themes for listing on the Shopify Theme Store.

To help partners better assess the opportunity this presents, we’ve put together some pointers on ways you can improve the chances of being listed on the Shopify Theme Store, as well as how to set your theme up for success. 

1. Defining, planning, and designing a theme

theme store success: An image of a team of four people working on design sketches and notes.

Before you even consider writing your first line of theme code, it’s critical to understand what you are building, and who you are building it for. As the saying goes, “fail to prepare and prepare to fail!” 

In this step, you’ll do the work to understand the purpose of your theme and how it will serve your audience.

Defining

So, what is a theme? And what is its purpose? 

A theme is a template that determines the way an online store looks, feels, and functions for merchants and their customers. It’s a crucial component for merchants to express their brand identity to the world in a visual and interactive manner. 

“A theme should provide a degree of flexibility that empowers merchants to take control of their brand identity and customer experience.”

Not only should your theme have purposeful direction and strong design elements, but it should also provide a degree of flexibility that empowers merchants to take control of their brand identity and customer experience. A theme should provide a range of deliberately curated features and settings that are aimed at helping the target audience achieve their goals. It’s also the means by which a merchant can leverage a range of Shopify-developed features that are designed to empower their store’s success. 

By clearly defining the purpose of a theme, and how merchants and buyers interact with it, will give you a better insight into how you can plan and design a theme that will meet a merchant’s needs.

Planning

Having defined what a theme is and what it does, then the next step is to plan who you are intending to build the theme for. It is highly advised not to overlook or underestimate the importance of critical planning, as doing the groundwork first will pay off in the long run. Some key parts of the planning process should include the following:

  • Understanding the profile of the merchant type, or business vertical, that you are aiming to serve. This is fundamental to building a successful theme for the Shopify Theme Store. 
  • Researching the target industry continually (even after launching your theme) will provide an understanding of the needs of that target group. 
  • Working directly with merchants in order to assess their needs. Doing so is an invaluable way to interpret what a theme should be offering to that category of merchant.

Another key aspect to understand at this point is that themes on the theme store are built to service many merchants, and are not built for just an individual merchant. The considerations given to building a custom theme for a single merchant tend to be very specific to their product type, store experience, and brand identity. Their brief and requirements will likely detail the feature sets and settings that will reflect their particular brand needs. 

Now, consider trying to build for thousands of merchants in a particular category or business vertical. How do you address the purchase flow, customer UX, feature sets and settings, and design options so that anyone using the theme can use the component elements to create an experience unique to their needs and brand identity?

It can be tempting to pack in as many settings and feature sets that you possibly can, but this can undermine the theme’s success. Feature sets and settings need to be carefully planned to find the right balance. 

By adding too many settings you can risk “set-up fatigue” as well as negatively impact the performance ranking of the theme. Add too few settings, and you may be inundated with customization requests, or worse still experience no traction with the target audience as your theme does not provide essential features those merchants need. 

“The key is to balance what the theme should implement natively (such as core Shopify features), with what key elements and custom settings you can offer to make your theme unique and resonate with the target sector.”

The key is to balance what the theme should implement natively (such as core Shopify features), with what key elements and custom settings you can offer to make your theme unique and resonate with the target sector. As an example, if you are creating a theme that is aimed at the food and beverage industry, there is no need to include product swatches or size chart-related settings. 

Being deliberate on the customizable elements your theme offers helps a merchant establish their store, get to market, and create the experience they desire more easily.

Richard Davies of design agency Eight takes this approach while building Shopify themes.

“We’re always looking for ways to make our themes the best possible starting point for merchants looking to succeed with their online stores,” he says. “Deciding what functionality would best aid merchants, and what settings or options to include without overcomplicating the experience is a constant balancing act.”

Conducting user research, reviewing successful stores in the targeted vertical, and learning from experience through working directly with merchants are some of the best means to evaluate what components to include. 

These considerations will help you build a theme that is highly relevant, specific, and resonates with the targeted merchants. A theme that is effective in its purpose helps the merchant’s chance of success. The best way to grow your theme business is to make sure your themes are meeting the needs of the merchants.

Designing

Design is often seen as a subjective element in any theme. However, there are some principles, considerations, and best practices that underpin solid effective design. High-quality design confidently addresses vital areas such as art direction, consistency, typography, layout, and customer UX, among others. To better assist partners in these areas, we created a design rubric to act as a guide to better design and UX implementation.

“Good design in themes values function and form. This is achieved through understanding and empathizing with the target audience and incorporating that into an aesthetic where function and form are in harmony.”

Good design in themes values function and form. This is achieved through understanding and empathizing with the target audience and incorporating that into an aesthetic where function and form are in harmony. Being able to include design elements that are relevant to merchant needs will increase the likelihood that your theme will resonate with the target audience. 

For example, if you were targeting a merchant audience that desired a strong editorial experience, then the way in which the typography and content are displayed would be of vital importance to them. It’s often more important to approach design from the lens of your audience rather than from your own personal bias (but that does not mean that you shouldn’t add a distinct design flavor).

As with planning, take time to detail your designs and ensure that there is consistency and attention paid to the user journey for both the merchant and customer visiting the merchant’s store. It can also be helpful to view the project as designing a system, as a theme provides merchants a base to build on. Aim to have the theme assist the merchant by making some good fundamental design decisions on their behalf.

For more on how Shopify thought about designing our new theme, Dawn, check out our post on the Shopify UX Blog.

2. Development, resources, and your team

theme store success: An overhead image of a desk with a team of people working on Macbook laptops.

Once you have a clear plan for a theme, have compiled your research, assessed your data, and prepared the designs, then development can begin. 

When developing a theme for the Shopify Theme Store, several key considerations should always be factored into your development. The main item to note is that the Shopify Theme Store has strict requirements and criteria to guarantee that themes listed there are built with quality in mind. Read up on our requirements to fully align your development with Shopify Theme Store standards. 

“Not only should you position accessibility as a priority consideration in your theme development process, but also factor in that accessibility is an ever-evolving environment and will be an ongoing consideration.”

It’s worth noting that you should always include the following elements as integral to your theme development:

  • Performance. It’s difficult to overstate how important performance is to themes. Performance has been clearly linked to improved buyer conversion. Optimizing your theme for performance is an integral way to help merchants succeed and to improve their customers’ experience. The topic of performance and best practices to follow when building your Shopify theme is covered in our developer documentation.
  • Mobile-first design and development. Designing and developing for mobile is more than simply reformatting content to screen widths—instead, it is a progressive enhancement (as opposed to graceful degradation of UX). This is important both for ranking in search engines and for the fact that mobile commerce is a dominant trend. This topic is well covered in the articles on mobile-first design and mobile commerce.
  • Accessibility. Accessibility is not only a component of best web practices and a dutiful inclusion for those requiring assistive technology but has also become legally enforceable in many countries. Not only should you position accessibility as a priority consideration in your theme development process, but also factor in that accessibility is an ever-evolving environment and will be an ongoing consideration. Some fundamental elements of accessibility are set out in the helpful guide accessibility best practices for Shopify themes, as well as in the required items listed in theme store requirements, to help you build towards compliance. Do note that building themes towards accessibility is the responsibility of the individual theme partner. The aim should always be to build towards a better user experience for assistive technologies.

    Shopify theme developer Michaël Gallego of Maestrooo echoes the importance of focusing on accessibility.

    “As a developer first, quality of the code and performance are my priorities. I love creating beautiful code the most,” he says. “Accessibility became an interesting challenge and an area where I would have never progressed to where I am now without Shopify pushing this.”

  • Online Store 2.0. This is Shopify’s latest theme framework that makes themes more flexible and easier to maintain. Only themes that are Online Store 2.0-compatible will be accepted for listing on the Shopify Theme Store. Our theme developer resources have been updated to include all the necessary information on building themes for this new framework. If you are new to theme development, read our guide on getting started, or explore Dawn, our vision for the next generation of Shopify themes with Online Store 2.0 features built-in.

Team and infrastructure

As with approaching any new venture or opportunity, you should assess the bandwidth you can supply, as well as what resources and operating structure you have. 

In the experience of the Shopify Theme Partnerships team, agencies and teams with multiple skill sets and roles have a higher chance of success in the Shopify Theme Store, as opposed to a single developer attempting to balance all responsibilities of a Shopify Theme Partner business. 

This is mainly due to both the cumulative input and bandwidth advantages that a team has over a single individual. Being part of an efficient and well-structured team improves your ability to effectively research, design, build, test, submit your theme for review, manage publishing, support, update, and maintain. Considering that most teams now operate on a remote model, this can present its own unique challenges. We have a blog on how to work remotely that may assist. 

3. Submitting to the Shopify Theme Store

The process and related resources for submitting themes to the Shopify Theme Store can be found in our documentation, and it’s advised that these should be carefully reviewed by your team. This section will outline some important broader considerations. 

Absorb all the content and material

It may seem obvious, but this is critical for a successful application. Review all the online resources and ensure you fully understand the requirements, features, and criteria. Remember, if the theme fails on an item, it will not get approved. Being diligent with the requirements, criteria, and checklists not only improves your chances of a successful submission but also demonstrates that you and your team are organized and attentive to important requirements. 

Quality assurance (QA)

Test, test, test! The review process takes time and the Shopify Theme Review team does not act as a feedback loop, provide bug-hunting, or act as a quality assurance service for any submissions. 

If a theme fails on a required item, it will not be accepted and any re-submission is treated as a new submission—so don’t miss your chance by not fully testing and quality assessing your theme prior to submitting for review. For the very best chance of succeeding in the review process, make sure your theme is fully compliant with all of the requirements and before you submit, test again!

“For the very best chance of succeeding in the review process, make sure your theme is fully compliant with all of the requirements and before you submit, test again!”

4. Getting listed on the Shopify Theme Store 

If you are confident in the concept, designs, development, and in your adherence to the requirements, then it is also worth starting to prepare the additional elements that will be needed if your submission is successful. These are elements that are required to complete your listing for the theme on the Shopify Theme Store.

Prepare your resources

To be listed in the Shopify Theme Store, you will need the following:

  • Theme name. When thinking about choosing a theme name refer to the Theme and theme style naming requirements to prevent any listing issues.
  • Tagline. A short sentence that briefly outlines the purpose of the theme.
  • Demo store. To speed up the listing process, you should have URLs of demo stores available to showcase your theme. The products listed should be reflective of the industry you are targeting. Check out the requirements for demo stores to make certain you are meeting all criteria.
  • Products. The products to be showcased on your demo store can either be custom-created products or ones that you have been granted permission to use by an existing merchant.
  • Price. While it can be tempting to price a theme at the highest price point possible, this can also affect the success of the theme. Some questions that are worth asking are:
      • How does your theme compare when set against themes in the price bracket you are thinking of? Do they offer more/less than your theme in terms of UX/design considerations, performance, relevant feature sets? 
      • What level of a merchant are you targeting? For example, some merchants may have limited budgets so making your theme affordable could lead to a greater number of installs.

“Be proud of your work, be invested in its success, and above all be merchant-focused.”

The most important thing is to ensure that your theme delivers value and quality for the merchants choosing to purchase your product. Be proud of your work, be invested in its success, and above all be merchant-focused. 

Marketing your theme

While all themes listed on the Shopify Theme Store are required to be exclusive to the store as part of the Partner Program Agreement, you can still market your theme outside of the store if the purchase flow is directed back to the Shopify Theme Store. If you want to achieve rapid growth, you should consider developing your own marketing strategy to help drive merchants to your listing. The Shopify Theme Store also provides the ability to add a tracking pixel to the theme page listing to help you monitor and manage marketing campaigns.

Your marketing campaign could include a website, social media, networking, blogging, and offline activities. Whatever approach you choose for your own marketing efforts, we have brand assets you can leverage to showcase to merchants that your theme has been accepted to the Shopify Theme Store.

theme store success: A banner with the Shopify logo and the words,
An example of a brand asset you can use to market your theme.

5. Updates and maintenance

theme store success: An image of a person writing code on a laptop.

First and foremost, it’s important to understand that there are expectations and demands that come with having a theme listed on the Shopify Theme Store. A common misconception is that a theme listing is a passive income generator. This is certainly not the case. Themes are constantly evolving in order to meet new browser technology, advances in performance optimizations, accessibility considerations, new Shopify features, merchant requests, and more. As a result, the Shopify Theme Store is not a static habitat, and listing your theme here involves regular activity. Be prepared for a highly engaged and constantly evolving environment.

“A common misconception is that a theme listing is a passive income generator. This is certainly not the case.”

Updates

Updates are the latest versions of your theme that you submit to the Shopify Theme Store based on a need to make some changes to the theme. This could be to resolve a bug, improve a feature, alter some design elements, or adhere to a new Shopify feature release. 

It’s important to gauge if you and your team are able to manage regular maintenance and updates, as well as updating the theme with required new Shopify features as they are released. For example, certain newly developed Shopify features are required and must be integrated within strict deadlines, or a theme can face delisting if it fails to update with the feature within the timeframe.

Factoring in regular update cycles or sprints helps ensure that maintenance, bug fixes, and progressive enhancements are tackled and pushed in an efficient manner. This also benefits your support queues by easing the burden of tickets related to issues or necessary updates. Updates generally fall into the following categories:

  • Shopify feature releases. Be prepared to facilitate these by being able to carve out time in your roadmap that can be assigned to Shopify feature updates should they be released.
  • General maintenance and bugs. Supporting your theme for general maintenance and bug fixes within a reasonable timeframe is a requirement for listing on the Shopify Theme Store. Your theme should function perfectly out of the box. Bugs will present themselves over time, so make sure to frequently test and maintain your theme. Keeping your theme bug-free, or tackling them quickly is a great way to maintain a good customer experience.
  • Custom updates. Themes are never static, especially in the Shopify Theme Store. In order to maintain relevance and stay competitive, a theme will undergo partner-led changes to keep the theme fresh and vital. Themes will also implement updates in order to enhance their appeal or to stay relevant to a target audience. These updates could be based on user feedback from merchants, trending patterns, or emerging improvements in code or browser technologies.
  • Additions and deprecations. Refer to our developer changelog regularly to keep up to date with new Liquid updates or for deprecations that are of relevance.

6. Setting your theme up for success

Once your theme is live and you have a plan in place for ongoing maintenance, it’s important to understand how to have continued success in the theme store.

Providing excellent customer support

Providing support for your theme is considered the most demanding and time-consuming aspect of having a theme listed on the Shopify Theme Store. At the time of writing, the number of support tickets that theme store partners currently handle ranges from about 300 to over 1,000 support tickets per week (depending on the number of themes in their catalog as well as the popularity of the themes). Investing in dedicated support, or at least allocating appropriate bandwidth for support, is key in preventing your business from being quickly overwhelmed by the volume of tickets. 

“Investing in dedicated support, or at least allocating appropriate bandwidth for support, is key in preventing your business from being quickly overwhelmed by the volume of tickets.”

Planning your theme carefully will go a long way towards mitigating support debt. If you have identified the needs of your target audience and delivered them through clear UX, then your support should not be inundated with multiple tickets about feature requests, or frustrations with the theme configuration.

It’s also helpful to manage your support by creating clear and helpful user guides as well as an FAQs page. These are great ways to help merchants self-serve and should be regularly updated. A public-facing changelog also helps merchants understand the versioning of the theme and what updates are made. 

Being listed on the Shopify Theme Store also requires the partner to have a dedicated support form linked to the theme page listing so that merchants can reach out directly. 

The benefits of good support

One of the main aspects that helps a theme gain traction with merchants is a great customer experience. It is vital for the success of any theme to have reliable, efficient, and dedicated support. There are several key benefits to managing your support well, that help drive the success of your theme business.

Preparing for the support burden with dedicated support means that the other areas of your team resources dedicated to development and design have the space to react quickly to new trends, new features from Shopify, leverage new tooling, iterate on performance, accessibility, and any other areas that are a progressive enhancement for your theme. 

Support can also act as the best user research you can get. Merchant feedback, feature and setting requests, relevant use-cases, live store examples, and feature adoption information are all notable elements that can help you iterate and improve your theme offering, or even plan for another theme! 

Paul Mason of Troop Themes agrees: “What is the most beneficial part of being a Shopify Partner in the Theme Store? Connecting with and gaining insights from merchants all around the world—types of stores, products, and stories.”

Working with merchants, seeing them create stores using your theme, and how the feature sets and settings you have provided help them achieve their success, can be rewarding on a personal and professional level. 

“I absolutely love helping shops start and thrive,” says Jonathan Moore of Style Hatch. “That part of it makes the entire thing personally rewarding for me.”

Reviews

Another benefit that is accrued from great merchant-focused support is the reviews. Good reviews go a long way to helping other merchants choose your theme, as they can see it as a validation of the service you offer after they invest in your product. 

Negative reviews are also helpful for understanding a merchant’s frustration, and can be used to improve the theme—see it as constructive feedback. Having all positive reviews never looks realistic on any product, so welcome the bad along with the good. To help oversee this area of theme listing, find more information on managing reviews in our documentation.

“While positive reviews help build trust, false reviews can break trust irreparably.”

As with the Shopify App Store, incentivizing reviews is not permitted on the Shopify Theme Store, so avoid attempting to manipulate this process. While positive reviews help build trust, false reviews can break trust irreparably. If fake or incentivized reviews are discovered, strict punitive action will be taken.

Be invested in running your theme business in a fair, merchant-focused, and consistent manner. Having excellent support will help you maintain a good relationship with the Shopify Theme Store, build trust with merchants, and grow a successful theme business. 

Finding success as a Shopify theme developer

After reading the above, do you feel confident that you and your team can deliver high-quality themes that are relevant to the merchants using Shopify? If so, then the Shopify Theme Store could present an opportunity for you to grow a theme-focused business, or as an additional product offering to your existing Shopify services. 

There is a lot that goes on behind the scenes in order to create a successful theme listing on the Shopify Theme Store. However, understanding and adopting the above fundamental principles will provide you and your team with the best chance of building themes that resonate with merchants. This is an exciting new era for themes in general, and we look forward to your theme submissions for the Shopify Theme Store.

To learn more about theme development on Shopify, join our upcoming webinars, Introduction to the Theme Store: Getting Started on July 29, 2021 and How to Build a Successful Theme Business with Shopify on August 5, 2021 for deep dives on setting your business up for success.



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