Thesis vs. Frugal vs. Headway

by Friction Marketer on January 1, 2010 · 30 comments

Note:  if you are trying to decide between these themes, please look elsewhere (good luck finding an informed unbiased opinion).  The following is an analysis of the marketing panache (or lack thereof) of the three different theme providers.  But if you want to know, I chose Thesis after much research (and I’m not an affiliate).

I had expected to write my first post on big brands, Coke vs. Pepsi, Chevy vs Ford; however, as I researched options for setting up this blog I came across three tiny competitors fighting over the premium wordpress theme market.

First a little history . . .

WordPress is arguably the most widely used blogging platform . . . and its free, which makes the hurdle for paying for a theme fairly high.  In early 2008, web developer, Chris Pearson debuted a premium theme called Thesis and quickly dominated the pay-for market.  It  was widely adopted and enjoyed a year without any serious challengers.

The launch of Thesis was not entirely without note.  Thesis creators Chris Pearson and Brian Clark ended up trading litigious-laden Twitter  barbs with Matt Mullenweg (of WordPress) over the use (or abuse) of the open source platform.  (Remember this – it will come up again later).

In early 2009, a new premium theme by Eric Hamm came on the market.  Frugal had Thesis directly in its sites.  It looked remarkably similar and was priced identically but was more minimalistic – slightly easier to use and cleaner design.

Months later, another theme entered the market to try to unseat Thesis.  Headway, by Michael Martine and attorney Grant Griffiths also looked very similar to Thesis.  Just like Frugal, Headway copied the Thesis’ pricing model, but had added a flashy drag and drop design module on top of Thesis functionality.

Numerous comparative blog posts came out.   My research on the consensus in the main differences:

  1. Thesis wins for SEO.
  2. Thesis wins for wide and active support community.
  3. Thesis wins for customization.
  4. Frugal wins (slightly) for ease of use and clean design (especially for non-coders).
  5. Headway wins for ease of design customization.

Then it got ugly. . .

Remember the open source spat between Thesis and WordPress?  Well it can come back around.  A comment from Brian Clark on a blog post called Why I Promote the Hell out of Thesis called out Headway for essentially stealing Thesis’ open source code and slapping a new interface on top.  (My boldface below.)

Thesis 2.0 (coming in September) will have Headway developers back where they started… looking at what we’ve done and scrambling to catch up. Luckily, all our members get the newest version of Thesis for free, no matter when they buy.

Innovation always beats imitation (even when everyone involved with Headway has access to our forums and our code… imagine that). You simply don’t know what the future looks like, and therefore Thesis will continue to set the standard.

Headway fired back with a blog post from affiliate John Hayden who declared war:  Thesis vs. Headway, are we at War? Thesis then dropped the ball by failing to live up to their promise of launching their 2.0 version in September (as of now, I’m still waiting for it.)

Marketing Review

Third Party Endorsements – The biggest marketing problem is that it seems that almost everyone who weighs in with any opinion has a vested interest – as either vendor or affiliate.  The theme that could win a genuine third party, unbiased comparison would have a huge advantage. Advantage:  No one

Differentiation:  Both Headway and Frugal look very much like the company that defined the market.  They all offer the same essential functionality.  The all offer two versions.  They all name their two versions the exact same thing “Developer and Personal”.  They all price their two versions exactly the same.  They all let you remove the footer attribution only with the Developer version.  Headway and Frugal even copied Thesis’ language and terms on their product pages.  See how similar these pages are:  Thesis, Headway, Frugal.    Nothing says “me too” like. . . “me too”. If consumers can’t identify a difference, they will usually go with the market leader. Advantage:  Thesis

Flagship Clients:  One of the major factors in choosing a product is understanding who has already chosen the product.  Frugal and Headway are at a huge disadvantage as they haven’t been out as long and can muster a few single working moms and a smattering of lawyers as clients.  Thesis clients includes tech rock stars Danny Sullivan and Matt Cutts among others.  Advantage:  Thesis

Overall Winner:  Thesis

What They Should do:

Thesis:  Capitalize on being the first and biggest provider.  Do a better job of showcasing celebrity clients like Danny Sullivan and Matt Cutts.  Neutralize your competitor’s functionality differences by updating your own product (read:  copy Headway’s drag and drop design functionality.)  Advertise your large and active community – this is a huge competitive advantage your competitors can’t touch.  Finally – back off on the bickering.  You are the market leader.  Act like it.

Frugal and Headway:  Try to get a large, branded client.  Give away your product (or even pay for it) if you have to.  If your products are actually different, offer a comparative matrix.  Make your marketing material actually different.  If you can’t identify differences in your own marketing collateral, how do you expect consumers to see you differently?  On the same note – differentiate through different pricing.  Finally, Frugal needs to careful they don’t get left out of the conversation as the nasty banter between Thesis and Headway continues.