I just got off the phone with a client. They hired MWI to provide SEO services, but as we progressed through the first few weeks with them the list of things to be fixed on the website grew and finally reached a tipping point where we realized it would be more cost effective for the client to create a new website rather than fix everything on the current one. This is not a new scenario, it happens all the time. It’s kind of like an auto mechanic being hired to jump into a moving car to make changes to the engine to help it go faster. The mechanic crawls onto the hood, opens it, starts working on the running engine, but then comes to the conclusion the car will get to where it’s going faster if it stops and replaces the entire engine.
The first question we get asked when this happens is “Why didn’t you tell me we needed a new website before you started doing SEO work? Isn’t all that SEO work a waste now?” The answer is that in most cases we don’t know and can’t know that a new website will be needed until we spend 20-30 hours digging into it. Yes, in 10% of cases it’s easy to know a client needs a new website. Sometimes we can tell within 5 minutes. In another 10% of cases we can tell within 5 minutes that the client has a great website and they definitely won’t need a new one. But that leaves 80% of websites in a zone where we simply need more time to tell whether it will be worth a redesign or not. Do we tell clients up front, before starting SEO, that they might need a new website? We do if we think it’s a possibility but again, it’s often hard to tell without spending significant time, and the truth is we hope we don’t have to recommend a redesign.
“Wait, why wouldn’t you want to recommend a redesign? Don’t you make a bunch of money off of building a client a new website?”
Sometimes we make decent money off a new website, but often we break even and sometimes we lose money. Even if we make money, it’s not a lot, and it’s nothing compared to what we make off of providing marketing services to a client for a two or three years. When you understand that our profits come from ongoing marketing–not one time website projects, then you’ll see why it’s the last thing we want to recommend to a client, because here’s what happens as soon as we recommend a website redesign.
Client CMO talking to client CEO: “MWI just told us we should redesign our website, and that it’s going to be more cost effective for us in the long run.”
CEO: “What the…?! Why didn’t they tell us this before we spent $10K on SEO?”
CMO: “They said they didn’t know.”
CEO: “What do you mean they didn’t know? Aren’t they the experts at this stuff? How could they not know?”
CMO: “They said it’s hard to know until they dig into the website, they were hoping they could work with what we’ve got, but the issues have piled up and now it makes more sense to redesign than to fix everything.”
CEO: [sigh] “Ok, I’m ticked off, but whatever. Do you think they’re right, or are they just trying to sell us an expensive website on top of everything else we’re paying them?”
CMO: “I don’t know, they’re the experts on this, and I don’t like it anymore than you do, but what they’re saying sounds reasonable.”
CEO: “How much will a new website cost us from MWI?”
CMO: “They’re working on an estimate, maybe $20-30K.” [Note: Websites we build at MWI can cost anywhere from $10K to $250K or more, it depends on the details–so if you’re reading this and you’ve got $10K for a website you’re still potentially in our range.]
CEO: “What?! Geez, $5K per month isn’t enough, now they want that out of us too? There’s no way.”
CMO: “But MWI does seem to know their stuff. I know it’s a lot, but what if we spend $5 or $10K on a website somewhere else, but it’s not what we need? Then we just blew through another $10K and we’re in the same spot as before.”
CEO: “Maybe MWI is the best, but there are a lot of other firms out there. Shouldn’t we at least shop around and compare some prices?”
CMO: “I don’t know why we wouldn’t shop around, right? I can’t see how it would hurt.”
CEO: “Ok, let’s stop paying for any more SEO until we figure this out. You go get some bids on website redesign, and then let’s talk again.”
Boom. That’s not a conversation I want MWI clients to be having. Now the client has stopped paying MWI, and is talking about getting bids from other companies. In some cases, that client never comes back. They might find another firm to do their website, and then that firm also does SEO, and they have a good experience with the website so they decide to try them out on SEO as well and we never hear from them again.
Why in the world would I want to do anything to provoke that conversation? Because if it’s truly the best thing for a client to redesign their website, rather than just continuing with SEO, I have a moral obligation to share this information with the client. I couldn’t sleep soundly at night otherwise. But I may not be as altruistic as you think. Even if I were 100% selfish and greedy and couldn’t care less about my integrity, I would still tell the client. Why? Because MWI can only grow if we have long term clients who are happy with us. We need clients who are going to stick around for a minimum of 12 months, and preferably for 5+ years. A client is only going to do that if they are getting great results and like and trust us. If I don’t tell the client they need a new website when they really do, that is going to slow down our ability to drive results for them. This increases the risk they become unhappy with us. There’s also a good chance they learn 12 months down the road that they needed a new website and we didn’t tell them, and then they’re really unhappy with us. When a client needs a redesign it’s a bit of a risky situation for MWI but when it’s needed then telling the client is the only path we have to making that client a long term customer.
What Kind of Website Do You Need?
How much should you pay for a website? That’s like asking how much you should pay for a car. It depends what you need and want. Do you want a Hyundai or a Audi? A Mini Cooper or a minivan? Is your website going to be a basic corporate site, an ecommerce site, a magazine with a content management system to manage the editorial process, or a financial website? The easiest way to divide it up is to talk about basic websites and “everything else,” because when it comes to everything else the sky’s the limit. How much has Amazon.com spent on their website? Billions. Thankfully you’re not Amazon, so let’s talk about more down to earth scenarios.
Basic Website Pricing
For the purposes of this discussion, here’s what I mean by a “basic” website.
- 10 to 50 basic pages including a home page, about us, contact, product or service pages, etc.
- 3 to 5 unique page designs. That is, you’ve got a homepage design, a second-tier page design, and maybe one or two other unique page designs, but most pages use the same layout and design as the others and differ only in content.
- One language.
- WordPress as a content management system, with basic functionality.
Those are the deliverables, here’s how the process works at MWI:
Discovery and planning. We research the client’s company, industry, and competition. We make sure we understand their customers, how they gather information and make decisions about purchasing the products or services our client offers. We do buyer persona research we map out online buyer journeys. Sometimes this process can go quickly, other times it takes a lot of time. We gather as much information as needed so that when we start doing UX and design we’re not taking a stab in the dark, but we know exactly what will work and what won’t work to accomplish our client’s goal, which is to sell a lot of products or services through the website, or at least generate leads.
UX and design. Depending on the requirements we may do a simple UX process or more involved to lay out the site. Then we start producing designs. Everything we do is custom–we don’t buy templates or re-use anything. We do a single homepage design first and present that to the client. If the client likes it, we produce second tier designs. We generally start out producing desktop designs, but I can see the day coming where most clients might want us to do mobile designs first. If the client continues to like the first batch of designs, we continue working on these until we have all the designs for desktop complete. Then we start doing designs for various breakpoints between desktop and smartphone. That means at a minimum we’re designing every page for desktop, laptop, tablet, and smartphone. Even if a website only has three unique pages (homepage and two second tier page designs) that means we’re going to do a minimum of 12 page designs. This allows the site to be responsive in an elegant and purposeful way as users view it on different screen sizes.
Coding. Once the site is done, we start coding it. We have a team that is meticulous about coding, mostly by hand. Yes, we use frameworks to speed up work where it makes sense, but we make sure everyone on our team could code the entire site by hand if needed, because there are always challenges that come up, and a front end developer who only knows how to work with frameworks isn’t going to be able to figure them out as quickly or as well if they don’t know how to code by hand.
WordPress. Virtually every website we do is powered by WordPress as a content management system. We integrate our coded pages into WordPress and configure it to be as easy as possible for the client to update themselves. We add basic plugins for SEO and other functionality.
Hosting. We frequently make recommendations for better hosting providers for our clients. Hosting speed can impact SEO results, and every once in a while you find hosting companies that are simply unreliable. This happened with another client’s website this week. Within a few hours of the matter being brought up we had moved their entire site to a new host and took care of the entire process easy for them.
Content. This is generally the big factor that changes pricing on basic websites. Sometimes we create content for our clients, sometimes they provide it all themselves. Sometimes they have 20 pages of content, sometimes they have 300. Sometimes they have simple content that can be copied and pasted, other times it has images and video and more time is taken up formatting all the content. It’s not hard for the work that goes into the content alone to double or triple the price of the website after the basic shell has been built.
This is a highly summarized overview of what we put into a “basic” website, but gives you the general idea. Throughout all this we communicate extensively with our clients. The end result is a great website that does what the client needs it to do in order for the client’s business to grow.
How much should you pay for this kind of website? We would charge anywhere from $10,000 to perhaps $30,000 on the higher end. We like to be conservative and charge a higher price to allow us to do the best job possible (see Why You Should Invest In Marketing That Is Too Expensive), because web projects always grow in scope and exceed small budgets.
Pricing for More Complex Websites
When pricing a more complex website we start with basic pricing, then add to it. In 99% of situations, when the site is more complex we’ll give the client fixed pricing for the basic part, and then bill hourly for the rest. Why not give fixed pricing for the whole thing? Because we don’t know how much time it’s going to take. Sure, we can make an estimate, but it’s an educated guess. In one extreme example, we recently made the mistake of doing a fixed price ecommerce project because it seemed straightforward and simple. It’s a jewelry website. But as we got into the details, we realized the client had very complex needs in terms of being able to customize information about her products. If we had known how complex it would become we would have charged 150% of the contracted price. We’re eating that extra work, and we won’t make that mistake again.
From us, you might pay $20,000 for a basic ecommerce website, or $30,000 for a basic magazine website. But you could easily pay $100,000 or $500,000 for either one if you had complex details. You might think we’re making a fortune on this work, but again, we’re not. We hire the best people to work on these sites. They’re faster than most other designers and developers out there, so we and our clients get a lot of value per hour. But it still takes a lot of hours, and hiring the best people isn’t cheap.
Why Are You So Much More Expensive?
What happens when our fictional CMO and CEO above go out and start getting prices for their redesign? Something like this.
CMO: “I’ve got some bids on website redesign.”
CEO: “Alright, let’s take a look.”
CMO: “To be honest, I’m totally confused. MWI gave us a formal proposal and told us a redesign of our site would cost $20K. But then I go over to 99designs and they say they can give me 40 designs to consider, then code it all up on WordPress, for only $2,500!”
CEO: “Wait, so you’re telling me MWI is charging 8 times as much for the same work?”
CMO: “Yeah, that’s what it looks like.”
CEO: “I don’t get this. I just don’t see how this is possible. Are they just ripping people off…I mean, how could they charge that much and get away with it? Or is the stuff from 99designs just junk?”
CMO: “That’s what I was thinking. I’m thinking there’s got to be something wrong with the 99designs work if it’s so much cheaper, but I’ve looked at some of their sites and they look pretty ok. I mean, maybe MWI’s look a bit better, but I don’t think they’re 8 times better. And it’s not just 99designs. There are a bunch of other companies out there like them, plus I’ve found other agencies here locally that are 1/4 or 1/2 as much as MWI.”
CEO: “So what do we do? If we go with a cheap option, what if we get the final product and then we realize it’s junk? Then we just lost a bunch of time and we’re out that money and we still have to go back to MWI and pay them.”
CMO: “I don’t know. Let me talk to them and ask them about this. There’s got to be some explanation.”
Then I get a call from the client telling me that they’ve gotten several bids and we are twice as much as the next highest one, and some are a lot, lot cheaper. Once again, can you see why I don’t want to recommend a redesign to our SEO clients?
There are good reasons why our websites cost more than what a company will get at 99designs, or pretty much any other place other than a major ad agency (where you’d pay 5 to 10 times what we charge–and in that case there’s often no difference because many of those guys just come and outsource the work to companies like ours). The problem is it’s not easy to explain, and doesn’t always sound convincing. To go back to the car analogy, imagine trying to sell a Audi to someone who knows nothing about cars, and who just came from the Hyundai dealership.
Customer: “Wait, why does your car cost five times what this other guy’s car costs?”
Salesman: “It’s an Audi. The other guy’s car is a Hyundai.”
Customer: “So? What’s the difference? They’re both cars. They’ve both got four wheels, four doors, headlights, etc.”
Salesman: “Ours is a better driving experience.”
Customer: “How much better can it be?”
If you’ve driven both an Audi and a Hyundai (I’ve owned both, and let’s just say I’m glad to now live in Hong Kong where I don’t need to own a car at all), you know there’s a big difference between driving the two cars, and yet it’s hard to say exactly what those differences are. It’s much the same with a website. Once you get a website from a company like 99designs and a website from MWI, you realize there’s a big difference. But you’re stuck saying things like “The process was better,” “I feel like we got a website we can really be proud of,” or “It just produces results in a way the other website didn’t.” But it can be hard to get more specific. And the problem is that unlike when buying a car, you can’t go test drive the two websites. You have to commit to one or the other.
It’s no easier for professional designers to explain why their work is better than what can be had at 99designs than it is for clients, even if the clients are happy with the results they get from paying more. And yet as hard as it is to explain, there’s a reason Apple doesn’t outsource their website to 99designs, and there’s a reason 60% of our clients bring up the Apple website when we start asking them questions about what kind of design they like.
What do I tell people when they ask why we’re more expensive?
Quality of design. It’s not just that it looks better overall and looks better in the details, it’s that it’s the right match for your company and your customers. That requires someone who understands your business and your customers, and who then has a precise eye and understanding of how design influences those people. That’s unlikely to be the guy who works at 99designs and is willing to compete against 40 other designers in order to earn a few hundred dollars. It’s also unlikely to be anyone earning less than $60,000 per year as a salary, and there are plenty of designers earning over six figures. If they’re making that much, you’re going to get a $5,000 website from that kind of designer even if you hire one on freelance.
Quality of coding. I touched on it above, but there are different levels of coders. In our hiring process whenever we advertise for a new opening for a front end developer we receive anywhere from 200 to 400 applications. We quickly eliminate 90% of those. We not so quickly eliminate another 5%. Then we interview those 5%. From those interviews we get it down to 1%. Then we give those two or three who are left some test projects. We’re testing technical skills, but also communication, responsiveness, how they work with others, and those other intangibles that can lead to tangible differences in outcomes. By the time we hire a front end developer they’ve been tested thoroughly. We don’t care so much what they cost–we want the best.
Process. When we work it’s more involved. We’re not throwing out quick work, hoping to win the lottery by getting lucky with our first design. We’re not pulling a template off the shelf. We’re doing research, and the results of that research show up in the quality of the design. We’re communicating–a lot.
Added value. We aren’t just focused on delivering a good looking website, we’re thinking about what this website will do for your business, and what outcomes it will generate. For that reason we don’t just say “What text do you want on the homepage in this main area up top?” We say “Based on our research and understanding of your customers, plus past experience with other clients, we recommend using the phrase ‘such and such’ here because that’s going to get your customers to think ‘Yeah, that’s me, that’s who I am, this company really understands me so I can trust them to give me a service that matches my needs,’ and as a result you’ll sign up more customers.”
Results. What it all comes down to is results. Does the website sell more? Does it generate more leads? That’s what our work does. Not that you wouldn’t get an improvement over what you have now if you go to someone else cheaper, but there’s a reason our clients pay our prices, and it’s because they get the outcomes they’re after.
“This all sounds good, but you could just be ripping people off. Or maybe another agency is even more expensive than MWI. How do I know they’re not ripping me off, like those big bad ad agencies you mentioned?”
Questions to Ask When Hiring A Web Design Firm
If you want to reduce the risk of hiring the wrong web design firm, get answers to these questions.
- How do the sites look that they’ve designed before?
- What references can be provided?
- If you like a particular site or two, is the designer who worked on them the same designer who would be assigned to your project?
- How long has this firm been doing web design? How long has the designer who will be assigned to your project been doing web design?
- Who will do the front end coding? Do they code by hand or use frameworks or both? Could they code the entire site by hand if it were necessary?
- What is the process?
- What is the typical budget range for projects?
- How are payments structured?
- What is the typical turn-around time for projects?
- When will the project start?
- What is required of you as the client?
- Does the price include making the site responsive/mobile friendly?
- Does the price include WordPress or some other content management system? What else is included?
- Does the firm provide custom design or use templates?
- Does the firm offer maintenance, support, or training once the site is finished? Is it included or extra?
There may be other questions that could be asked, but this is a start. There aren’t necessarily easy right or wrong answers to each of these questions, but asking them will give you a sense of whether that firm is right for you or not.
Should I Ever Hire A Cheap Designer?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not hating on 99designs or anyone else. If all you need is a Hyundai, then buy a Hyundai. But don’t buy a Hyundai when you need an Audi, a bus, or a jet plane. I sometimes refer people to 99designs or other designers. Not too long ago I met a woman who is an aspiring author. She was asking me how much it would cost her for a website through MWI, and upon learning more about her I told her “You can’t afford us and even if you could you don’t need us. You’ll be served just fine as you’re getting started with a website from 99designs at a fraction of the price.” If she gets a website that’s mediocre, she’ll be fine. It’s not a make or break situation where she can’t afford to go wrong, or where great design is going to make a huge difference for her. If she were trying to produce a major best seller, and getting the right website could make the difference between $5,000 in book sales and $100,000 in book sales then I would have given her a different answer.
I hope this is helpful. If you have any questions ask in the comments below and I’ll respond, or send me an email at email@example.com.