How to select the perfect blog theme design

Blogs are a big part of content marketing. And content marketing is the trendiest, best-est, free-est form of marketing, right? So you should have a blog!

What’s the most exciting part about blogs? Designing your theme template, of course! While there is absolutely no flaw in that logic flow (says the content marketer who works for a design company), if you want to make the most of your blog, you should make sure it’s designed to do what you need and make you look good.

So before you get sucked into the WordPress theme wormhole you’re going to want to determine some priorities, and remember one key tenet: function guides form.

To figure out how your needs determine your blog theme design, ask yourself these three questions:

1. Is my blog stand-alone or part of a larger organization?

Companies use blogs to help consumers learn about their areas of expertise, but with the ultimate goal of selling a product or service. As an example, here’s a shameless plug for the 99designs blog, where you can learn all about how design impacts business (and then get yourself a swell new logo, website or tattoo designed). Let’s call these company blogs. Company blogs should prioritize:

Customization features

You likely already have an established brand, and you’re going to want your blog to fit in. If you’re going with an out-of-the box theme design, make sure that it offers the ability to customize colors, easily add your logo and change other design elements so your blog is on brand.

Support for the plugins you need

Your goal is to sell a product or service, and your content is the first step to getting people interested, but once they’re reading your words, you need to provide them with the ever-important CTA. And make sure you’re tracking their behavior patterns. Before you settle on a theme, make sure that it plays nice with the plugins that are essential to your business’ function.

Other organizations and individuals maintain blogs where the content they produce is the product. Generally, their income comes from advertisements, though often as they grow successful they’ll also begin to sell products related to their brand. A great example of one of these stand-alone blogs is the Art of ManlinessStand-alone blogs should prioritize:

Adsense optimization

Assuming you want to make money, you will need ads. So make sure any theme you’re looking at is built to support them.

Navigation

Your goal is to get people to read what you write. Once a reader finishes one article, you want them looking at another. When you’re selecting a theme, you want to make sure it has robust support for custom menus and navigation, and offers the ability to tease readers with links to related articles, your most popular posts and/or something you’ve decided to feature.

Shopping cart integration

You might not be at this point yet, but if you want to eventually sell t-shirts with your super-popular logo on them, it’s good to think ahead and make sure that the theme you’re looking at has support for a reliable shopping cart product.

2. What am I using my theme for?

Over the years, the term blog has changed in meaning. It’s no longer just teenage girls documenting their feelings on LiveJournal (though that still exists). So when you say you’re looking for a blog theme, what kind of theme are we talking about here?

An editorial blog is primarily text (with images to illustrate, but not necessarily as the focus). The Hubspot blog is a great example. Editorial blogs should prioritize:

Article page template

You want to maximize the reading experience for your visitor, to do this you need to eliminate distractions. If you have too many columns with competing information, you’re going to take away from the text, so I’d recommend keeping it a single column or possibly double (where the sidebar serves to direct the reader to other content).

Related articles

Yes, you definitely want to have navigation to your categories and tags, but more important than that is an easy way to show readers related articles. Your content is your king, and a catchy title on a topic you already know they’re interested in is way more likely to garner a click than a link to a general organizing term.

In a visual blog, on the other hand, the images are the highlight of almost everything you post. They might make up a portfolio for an artist, or the designs for a fashion company. Visual blogs should prioritize:

Main page layout

There are two ways you can go here: focus on one or two images and make them big, or show us a lot of images at once. Each has it’s merits, so make sure to look into the different photoblogging templates when selecting your theme.

Flexible layouts

If you’re maintaining a visual blog, you’re likely a visual person. This means you want to perfect and customize how your images are laid out and customize what everything looks like. When designing or selecting your theme, versatility is the key. You might have all square images now, but what happens when you start to shoot panoramas?

Image display support

Whether it’s built in or easily provided via plugins, you want to make sure users have the ability to make one of your pictures bigger! Nothing is worse than landing on a visual blog, and only being able to see the 500px square version of your painting.

These days, a lot of people are using traditional blogging platforms, like WordPress, as content management systems. These when-I-say-blog-I-really-mean-website blogs may include an editorial or visual blog within them, but the whole system is integrated and all built on one theme. When-I-say-blog-I-really-mean-website blogs should prioritize:

CMS-ready capabilities

These days there are a ton of great theme options that have built in support for using blogging platforms as a CMS. You absolutely want one of these. They will often include multiple homepage layouts, as well as different templates for pages, products, etc.

Pages

You absolutely need to ensure that your theme has robust support for pages, as you’ll likely be using those as much (if not more) than articles.

Custom menus

You’re going to want to be able to control the navigation on your site. Make sure the theme has support that makes this easy for you to do.

E-commerce integration

If you sell something, make sure you get a theme that makes it really easy to integrate whatever shopping cart platform you use.

Hubspot blog image
HubSpot divide their blog into specific sections for different audiences

3. How are people finding my blog and what are they looking at?

If you already have a blog and are in the market for a new theme design, take a gander at your analytics before deciding on what you want. When you’re theme shopping (or designing) it’s easy to spend all of your energy on your home page design, as that’s what you think of as being the main page. But oftentimes, what is really happening is that people are finding your pages through SEO, or social media shares, and they’re reading your articles and never visiting the main page you spent so much time agonizing over. Established blogs should prioritize:

Content that is getting the most visits

If 95% of your page views are on articles, then spend most of your time looking at the article page examples of the themes you’re considering.

Where you want to get more views

Maybe your analytics tell you that your bounce rate is terrible. Design is an easy way that you can try to improve less-than-stellar numbers. Thinking about your goals and what changes you want to make can help guide your decisions.

If you’re just starting out, you don’t have analytics to fall back on, so instead you’re going to want to think about how you plan on getting people to see your blog. If you’re creating a company editorial blog, are you linking to articles from other pages on your site, or building a link to the main blog page in your navigation? Are you planning on doing a social media push to get people to your pages? Based on this, you can nail down your design criteria, which should include:

Flexible themes

Right now, you’re using your best guess to estimate your readers’ patterns and needs. But no matter how good your hypothesis is, it’s still a hypothesis. You may realize after two months that the site you thought was going to be SEO gold isn’t doing anything, but you’re getting a ton of social media traction. While having a flexible theme may mean it’s not optimized for a specific use case, it can allow you to adapt to your changing needs until you’ve got your market figured out.

Well-supported themes from established designers and developers

While it’s tempting to work with a designer to come up with something completely unique, I would save this for a phase-2, especially if you’re new to WordPress (or whatever blogging platform you’re using). You don’t want to end up in a position where WordPress issues an update and your theme breaks and your designer is nowhere to be found. There are plenty of companies out there who offer free and low cost themes with lots of options, flexibility and support, so you can concentrate on your blog’s content instead of back end management.

Bonus question: what do you like?

Congratulations! You answered all the important questions. Now you get to have a little fun. Still have a love affair with yellow? Heck yeah, go find yourself a banana-inspired theme. Think parallax is super cool? Google search some examples for inspiration (then check off to make sure that this will also meet all of your other needs).

Image credit: Designs by INVIPIC Family licensed under Creative commons 2

Kelly Morr

Kelly is the senior manager of content strategy at 99designs, which provides blog, logo and other design you’d love (guaranteed). 99designs also recently redesigned their own blog. Wanna read more about their rationale and implementation? Read about it here.

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