How to find a great web development agency (Pt. 2)


December 22, 2023

Not all agencies are made alike.

What is your project worth to you and how much should you pay for it?

We talk to dozens of people a month who are looking for new digital properties to help build their business or organization. Some need marketing tools, others need applications to engage their target audience, or workflow solutions to make their business more efficient and profitable. Based on the conversations I often have, I thought I’d offer some suggestions about how you can find the right developer to work with.

Before you start Googling around, or make your first phone call, you need to answer a few questions for yourself.

Too often, I get calls from people calling around to find the best price for their web project. But they seem to have little understanding of the different types of value that different firms might bring to that project, or the value that the project itself might have to their business. A little preparation can help you with a clear budgeting strategy for your project.

Define the business goals for your development project. If your new marketing website or application is successful, how would it improve your business’s revenue? For example: Would a modern new marketing website increase your sales conversions by 15% over the next three years? Would an application to help your fulfillment center track orders increase your efficiency by 20%? Or reduce the amount of time and labor spent on sales fulfillment? If you know the tangible goals you hope to achieve with your development project, the firms you contact will be able to make suggestions on how to achieve them. And you’ll have a better idea of what the project is worth to you, from a financial standpoint.]

Part 2: Everything you want to know but are afraid to ask, when interviewing web agencies:

“What’s your pricing?”

It makes sense to get a sense of the general cost of the firm you’re calling. But don’t expect to get the price of your dream website after a 20-minute conversation. We get calls all the time, expecting us to spit out a price or send them a proposal after a brief conversation. What they don’t understand is, our team will spend hours of understanding our client’s need, outlining possible recommendations, thinking about user experience strategy, project planning and time estimations before being able to determine the pricing on a specific project. We look very carefully at each project from a marketing perspective to determine how the site will engage our client’s target audiences and achieve their business goals. Every project is very unique. So, for us to plan and budget the hours for project management, marketing strategy, user experience planning, design, programming and quality assurance takes time. That said, we can provide most people with a general ballpark after an initial call or two.

“What CMS or programming languages do you use?”

There are many programming languages and frameworks out there, and the technology you build your site with is important. But, I’ll start by saying, the programming languages an agency works with is only as important as the professionalism and skill with they bring to the table, when planning and laying out a site that will effectively meet your goals. There are many programmers out there but you need a team that will use the available tools most effectively by applying enlightened user experience strategy, visual design and marketing principles.

Some of the most popular CMSes and site builders out there include WordPress, Shopify, Adobe Experience Manager, Webflow, Magento, Drupal, Shopify and Sitecore. Many of these are similar and any one of them might be suitable for your needs. Or, perhaps, for your budget and situation, a custom Content Management System and control panels, or more sophisticated custom programming makes more sense. If you were to spend enough time researching, the likelihood is that you would find two or three solutions that would work well for what you need.

Ideally, the firm you decide to work with is experienced with multiple languages and platforms, and can offer you the best one for your project and your budget. What I see too often, is that somebody talks to a web company that works on just one platform and promises they can provide everything they need. They get sold a web project that’s built on a platform that greatly limits the client’s growth and functionality. After a year or two, they have to go make yet another investment once they understand their mistake.

We all know the old saying, if you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Well, if you only work with WordPress, every site looks like a WordPress site. Not to bag on WordPress, it is inexpensive and offers good functionality if you’re willing to work within its confines. The question is, given your budget and business goals, is it the best thing for you? Or should you invest in a longer-term solution that might be more effective?

A few good questions to start out with when talking to a firm: What programming languages do their programmers specialize in? Which platforms do they work with that are best suited for your project? If they only work with one platform, be sure they’re not just trying to sell you what they have, rather than the best solution for you. There a literally hundreds of different solutions out there. Speak to a few different developers and do plenty of reading online, to determine what languages, platforms, frameworks and tools might make the most sense for your project.

One of the most important things to consider when deciding on a web platform, is that it’s widely used and adopted. Moving forward, you’ll want to have a choice of teams or developers that work on your platform, so you may want to avoid using a less widely used solution. Every year or two another new framework or platform becomes the flavor of the month and lots of developers pick it up and everybody wants to have the trendiest code on their site. But two years later, it may be difficult and expensive to find somebody to support and scale your project. Consider this when choosing your tech stack.

Red Flags to look for: If a firm only offers one platform or solution, be sure and talk to a few different firms to get a sense of what your best options are. Ask them all for the pros and cons of their platforms. Invest the time to do some research online.

“How good is your design? Can you powerfully represent my brand?”

I’m often surprised about how much attention people pay to programming languages and CMS systems, while not paying attention to user experience and design. Great sites can be built with different languages and on different CMS systems. The real hard part is building a great-looking, engaging website that is going to help grow your business or organization. Don’t worry so much about the nuts and bolts, and think more about the strategy and tactics.

How strong is the agency’s design team? Do they have samples that show they can deliver the look and feel you’re going after? Don’t worry so much about their experience in your specific industry. People often ask me, “has your firm ever designed a site in my industry?” To me, this is like asking an architect “have you ever designed a house with a picture window facing the beach?” Maybe she hasn’t. But is she an experienced and skilled architect? Do you like the designs of the houses she’s built? Has she shown in the past how to place a picture window in order to provide a great view? The truth is, a good design team can design for any industry or any type of business. Instead, look deeper at their design skillset: a.) do they create engaging websites that make you want to explore and stay on the site? b.) Are their sites easy to use and navigate? c.) Do their sites look professional and help build credibility and the brand message? d.) Does the agency have experience delivering on the kinds of goals your organization needs to meet with your website?

“Do you do marketing and brand strategy?”

There is a lot more that goes into a successful web project than just programming and design. What does the team know about marketing? Ask them for case studies proving they have used Internet marketing strategies and tactics to help their clients achieve their business goals. What brands have they developed? Do they understand the core concepts of marketing and apply them to their websites? How will they build your website or application to be engaging for your target audience? How have they deployed look and feel and messaging to help build and reinforce their client’s brands?

Often times people are in such a rush to have their website built, they haven’t stopped to figure out how they’re going to generate traffic to the site, to build their brand and increase sales, or achieve their other business goals. As I’ve written before, why build a website if nobody is going to see it?

What You Can Learn From the Proposal Process

After preparing your project requirements or RFP, completing your research, and having your initial conversations with a number of digital firms, it’s time to request proposals. The proposal process will shed additional light on the performances and practices of the candidate firms. A few indicators to look out for:

• Questions About Your Project Requirements

The firms that put serious thought into your project will have lots of questions for you in your initial conversations as they propose a solution for you. Look for the firms that show insight and real thought about your project. The right development team will bring a lot of value to the project in the planning and strategy they propose for your website or application. Be sure they’re thinking about things like a.) Have they balanced the pros and cons of various programming languages and platforms? b.) Have they made an effort to understand the target audience and key user personas that will use your site? c.) Do they have a strategy for the site’s user experience and content (UX)? d.) How will they drive traffic to the site once it’s built? The questions a team asks you will shed light on how seriously they’re taking your project and the quality of the ideas they have for you. Look for a consultative approach that will give you the benefit of the agency’s years of experience.

• Professionalism

It is customary for an RFP to include a proposal due date. To be fair, you should allow a decent amount of time for the firms to reply. (30 days is fairly standard, 14 days is reasonable in a crunch.) Whether or not the firm gets the proposal back to you in time is one indicator of the professionalism and quality of their management. Also, notice; has the team been available and on time for scheduled meetings and calls during the sales consultation process? It may seem like a small thing, but these all add up to tell you whether a firm can deliver what they say they will, and on time.

• Technical Expertise

Have members of the team’s development team been available for input about the technical aspects of your project? Did they speak knowledgeably about the platform and language they’re discussing?

A proposal is also sometimes called a “Scope of Work.” It typically is the key document in the agreement between you and your development firm. Think of it as the “recipe” for your web project and review it with the assumption that if a specific ingredient (a detail or feature) for your project is not specifically listed, it is not included within the quoted budget. Just because something is listed in your RFP or requirements, or was discussed at some point during the proposal process, you cannot assume it is included in the proposal, unless it is specifically  there.

Once you receive your proposals, you’ll be able to gather additional important information about the firms you’re considering. Key factors to look for in the proposal:

• Does it answer all the questions you asked in your RFP?

• Does it outline solutions that specifically address your business goals for the project and speak to what you’re looking for?

• Does it include all the functionality you requested in the RFP? This is important. If something you’re expecting is not listed here, assume it will not be included. Speak to the firm about adding it to the quote.

• Is the pricing within your budget range?

Making Your Final Decision

Here are a few factors I’d recommend considering when selecting your development partner. You can weigh them as relevant to your own project:

Pricing – This is obvious, but hopefully you’ve got the flexibility not to make your decision based solely on cost. Often, you do get what you pay for.

User Experience – As you review the website samples of the firms you’re reviewing, do you find them easy to understand and navigate? How many clicks does it take for you to find the information you’re looking for? Have the sites been planned to work well for multiple user personas? Do they look clean and uncluttered?

Creative Skills – A good design can capture (or even define) the essence of your brand, and help you differentiate yourself from your competitors. It can engage users and make them want to want to dig deeper into your website. It can even make it fun to use the site. Make sure the vendors you review can show you multiple well-designed sites that they’ve built. Clarify whether their site samples were built using custom design, or templates. Have a favorite site? Ask if the same designer or design team is still on staff and whether they’d be available for your project.

Programming Expertise – Ask for examples of similar programming functionality, particularly if you have unique requirements. They should at least be able to show you programming of similar sophistication. If a firm has built a lot of basic marketing websites with nothing more complicated than slide shows and contact forms, don’t expect them to necessarily be able to build your next big social networking idea.

Strategy & Marketing Expertise – A website is a very important platform for defining your brand. Look at the sample work of your prospective vendors, to see if their work powerfully represents the brands it’s been created for. Do the websites lend credibility, professionalism, creativity, relevance, and fun to the brands and organizations they were built for? Are they unique, and memorable? Does the tone, imagery, and messaging help build the brand?

Capabilities – Do the teams you’re reviewing have a broad list of capabilities that you may take advantage of as you continue to grow your brand or organization? Once you’ve developed trust and a good relationship with them on your development project, it would be nice if you didn’t have to go through this vetting process again, when you need someone to run your display ad campaigns or build you a mobile app.

Professionalism & Communication – If you’ve been doing your due diligence as you search for your new development team, you should’ve had significant contact with the firms you’re most interested in working with: A least a handful of meetings and phone calls, and lots of email correspondence. Have your interactions been professional and reliable? Is there a team you think you’d like to work with best, based on their personalities and demeanor? You’ve probably had a few clues about each of the teams at this point, and whether they’re likely to be a good fit for your project. You might want to go with your gut a bit on this one.

References – This is a no-brainer. Speak to some of the prospective firms’ current and former clients, to hear how their experience is/was working with the team in question. Were delivery dates met? Was communication good? Did they get what they expected, or even more?

Investing in a new digital property can be daunting. But if you do the research and legwork up front, you can rest pretty easy, once you pull the trigger and engage the team that’s right for you.

Good luck on your project! Feel free to get in touch with the Camelback Digital team with questions.

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