Morteza Heidarpour Morteza Heidarpour

The Future of Starter Content: WordPress Themes Need a Modern Onboarding and Importing Tool

The Future of Starter Content: WordPress Themes Need a Modern Onboarding and Importing Tool

Decorative image of cell phone beside a notepad with a website template drawn out.
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Starter content. It was a grand idea, one of those big dreams of WordPress. It was the new kid on the block in late 2016. Like the introduction of post formats in 2011, the developer community was all in for at least that particular release version. Then, it was on to the next new thing, with the feature dropping off the radar for all but the most ardent evangelists.

Some of us were burned over the years, living and dying by the progress of features that we wanted most.

Released in WordPress 4.7, starter content has since seemed to be going the way of post formats. After four years, only 141 themes in the WordPress theme directory support the feature. There has been no movement to push it beyond its initial implementation. And, it never really covered the things that theme authors wanted in the first place. It was a start. But, themers were ultimately left to their own devices, rolling custom solutions for something that never panned out — fully-featured demo and imported content. Four years is an eternity in the web development world, and there is no sense in waiting around to see if WordPress would push forward.

Until Helen Hou-Sandí published Revisiting Starter Content last week, most would have likely assumed the feature would be relegated to legacy code used by old-school fans of the feature and those theme authors who consider themselves completionists.

“Starter content in 4.7 was always meant to be a step one, not the end goal or even the resting point it’s become,” wrote Hou-Sandí. “There are still two major things that need to be done: themes should have a unified way of showing users how best to put that theme to use in both the individual site and broader preview contexts, and sites with existing content should also be able to take advantage of these sort of ‘ideal content’ definitions.”

Step two should have been this four-year-old accompanying ticket to allow users to import starter content into existing, non-fresh sites.

Since the initial feature dropped, the theme landscape has changed. Let’s face it. WordPress might simply not be able to compete with theme companies that are pushing the limits, creating experiences that users want at much swifter speeds.

Look at where the Brainstorm Force’s Starter Templates plugin for its Astra theme is now. Users can click a button and import a full suite of content-filled pages or even individual templates. And, the Astra theme is not alone in this. It has become an increasingly-common standard to offer some sort of onboarding to users. GoDaddy’s managed WordPress service fills a similar need on the hosting end.

Astra theme starter templates and content that users can import.
Astra’s starter templates and content.

As WordPress use becomes more widespread, the more it needs a way to onboard users.

This essentially boils down to the question: how can I make it look like the demo?

Ah, the age-old question that theme authors have been trying to solve. Whether it has been limitations in the software or, perhaps, antiquated theme review guidelines related to demo and imported content, this has been a hurdle that has been tough to jump. But, some have sailed over it and moved on. While WordPress has seemingly been twiddling its thumbs for years, Brainstorm Force and other theme companies have solved this and continued to innovate.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. There are plenty of ideas to steal copy and pull into the core platform.

One of the other problems facing the WordPress starter content feature is that it is tied to the customizer. With the direction of the block system, it is easy to ask what the future holds. The customizer — originally named the theme customizer — was essentially a project to allow users to make front-end adjustments and watch those customizations happen in real time. However, new features like global styles and full-site editing are happening on their own admin screens. Most theme options will ultimately be relegated to global styles, custom templates, block styles, and block patterns. There may not be much left for the customizer to do.

Right now, there are too many places in WordPress to edit the front-end bits of a WordPress site. My hope is that all of these things are ultimately merged into one less-confusing interface. But, I digress…

Starter content should be rethought. Whoever takes the reins on this needs a fresh take that adopts modern methods from leading theme companies.

The ultimate goal should be to allow theme authors to create multiple sets of templates/content that end-users can preview and import. It should not be tied to whether it is a new site. Any site owner should be able to import content and have it automagically go live. It should also be extendable to allow themes to support page builders like Elementor, Beaver Builder, and many others.

This seems to be in line with Hou-Sandí’s thoughts. “For a future release, we should start exploring what it might look like to opt into importing starter content into existing sites, whether wholesale or piecewise,” she wrote. “Many of us who work in the WordPress development/consulting space tend not to ever deal in switching between public themes on our sites, but let’s not forget that’s a significant portion of our user audience and we want to continue to enable them to not just publish but also publish in a way that matches their vision.”

Let’s do it right this go-round, keep a broad vision, and provide an avenue for theme authors to adopt a standardized core WordPress method instead of having everyone build in-house solutions.

I haven’t even touched on the recent call to use starter content for theme previews. It will take more than ideas to excite many theme authors about the possibility. That ticket has sat for seven years with no progress, and most have had it on their wish list for much longer. It is an interesting proposal, one that has been tossed around in various team meetings for years.

Like so many other things, theme authors have either given up hope or moved onto doing their own thing. They need to be brought into the fold, not only as third parties who are building with core WordPress tools but as developers who are contributing to those features.

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