The days of spending lavishly on your first/second/tenth website are doomed. For a host of reasons, it doesn’t make sense. It’s like buying a factory before you have seed money or your first customers.
If you’re in the early stages of growing your business or even your idea, save your marketing spend for experimentation and business modeling, not creative design firms who will give you a “corporate identity.”
All the effort that pre-IPO company spent with that sexy downtown design firm for a $100K, 3-month website project is being copied by a bunch of Eastern Block kids with immaculate PHP/CSS skills
That’s not to say you shouldn’t have a sharp logo/name/tagline. By all means, you have to be memorable.
But as for your website? Take a long, deep breath should anyone tell you to hire a web designer/developer. You may need to, but here are four signs that maybe it’s not the best strategy.
1. You’re Testing the Market
Marketing is a science for those of us who are active in it. To the outsider, it can seem bizarre hocus pocus, but if you’ve lived to see the emergence of digital marketing and have been there to watch it take over, you know that it’s all about theorize, design, experiment, repeat. Too often, companies focus on “design” only, neglecting the cycles to truly pinpoint cause and effect.
Early stage companies and those going through transition are going to have headaches beyond “is our site optimized for search.” Everything from messaging, pricing, sales funnels, product features and onboarding are consistently more challenging problems because they are foundational to your business. As such, the website you’re sending people to, needs to be able to adapt and change quickly to address those challenges.
Creative changes in proprietary sites can take much longer. What color to include, what images to show, if you need custom images. If you want some fancy, unique menu options or custom-coded content management systems, remember that you will have to pay for future changes and the delays in getting them out. And if you end up canning that original developer, you now have a dip in knowledge about how the site was built. Customization at this point is as dangerous as a loaded gun.
2. You or Someone You Know Can Adapt Websites
Web technology is no longer limited to someone who can code HTML or use Dreamweaver. There is much more power now. Drupal and WordPress have made the separation between content and display management just about fully realized. Both have limitations, but both also have an immense community of resources. That includes modern, compelling and ubiquitous themes and frameworks that get you 85% of your vision with a few simple downloads.
The rest of the work can be done in-house or with marketing design/technologist consultants that don’t have the ego/baggage of needing some special fingerprint on your brand. As long as they know the CMS, CSS and some PHP, and how these sites are built, you can focus on the content, not the code. That means building a market for your product, not just a website.
CONFESSION: I use to lament that companies were too focused on copying other companies and not developing everything from scratch, but today’s web designs have so many useful, tested core models that, especially for setting up shop early, you can get something up and have it be unique enough fast and cheap and pretty good. Plus, web technologies are changing (to support mobile platforms for example), so tying yourself to proven frameworks like Bootstrap or Zurb give you peace of mind.
3. You’re Product Isn’t Intimately Tied to the Website
Unless you are a true web company where your product is a website, you probably don’t need a fancy, specific, hard-coded, custom site. You probably shouldn’t even need that much custom coding.
The set of plugins for Drupal and WordPress (and the communities that support them) pretty much have every feature you can think of. If you sell physical or even virtual products, there’s a plugin for that. If you need a reservation system, there’s a plugin for that. Need to set up a support system? Plugins. In short, stitching web technologies is more useful. Do you really need to write your own payment gateway? Do you also need to install you’re own plumbing in your office? Do yourself a favor and take the plug-and-play site that gives you room to grow.
Remember that your website is for selling and supporting the product and not the product itself. It’s the shiny box your product comes in. You don’t need to make your own cardboard.
4. Speed Is More Critical than Uniqueness
I say “speed” but I really mean “efficiency.” Let’s be frank: it costs time and money and rounds of discussion to get your website right. Many a client have come to me saying, “we’d like our website to look like (fill in the brand).” Again, it takes a lot to hold back the urge to regurgitate, but I when I take off my designer/artist hat and put on my business/CEO hat, I get it. Let’s get to a quick, clean look that delivers the message with less friction.
That said, simplicity is really, really hard. Convolution is fast and easy. Brevity and grace is a set of refinements, not a starting point. And in the tech world, this is all the more true when we want to jam in every feature, every nuance into a long form datasheet that looks more like a laundry list than reasons to buy. Do yourself a favor here and save those nuances for a captivating blog entry on your fancy new site.
The good news is that the current trends of web design (right now, flat, clean, simple, mobile responsive) are available on a WordPress or Drupal theme somewhere for $50 to $100. That’s right: all the effort that pre-IPO company spent with that sexy downtown design firm for a $100K, 3-month website project is being copied by a bunch of Eastern Block kids with immaculate PHP/CSS skills. The web is so freaking unfair that it’s actually incredibly oligarchical.
And that same theme can be modified in a matter of days to deliver your message so you have a slick looking, modern site with not a lot of headaches or back-and-forth with that grumpy designer/developer you have in your basement. It feels good to say to a client, I can have those changes in by 2PM today and still be able to go to Starbucks. And tomorrow, you can change the site again (if you’re feeling frisky — see #1).
Now Before You Go on Elance…
So those are all pretty compelling reasons to hold off on bringing in a designer, but I would also caution you on just getting someone to manage your site. It’s a fine thing to do and can seem economical, but I urge you to have the marketing strategy and reasons for changes very clear in your head before you hand over the keys to the $4/hour consultant in the Philippines.
Adapting the site based on audience analytics? Tuning the message for clarity or impact? Go with someone who gets your business and can act as an agent of change for you and can be your marketing technologist.
I should also note that I’m specifically talking B2B brands. B2C brands are a completely different animal.