Asking the Right Questions
At Ave25, we work with a lot of companies that are in the same situation. They've been around for a while, they're doing well, and they have a website... but it's a little (or a lot) outdated, and they're looking to modernize. Choosing a company to work with can be difficult, not to mention time-consuming, so we put together a list of topics to discuss with potential vendors.
Working with a solo developer can be risky. What if he just stops replying to your emails, calls, and texts? Working with too large of a company can have downsides, too. You could start to feel like "just a number," and you end up with cookie-cutter results. Look for an established, reliable company with enough staff to handle the work, but not so many clients that you get lost in the shuffle.
Time zones can pose problems. A few emails back and forth can turn into a week-long fiasco if you're working with someone on the other side of the globe. Even the difference between East and West coast in the US can throw a wrench in things. It's hard to beat meeting face-to-face to get a feel for the personalities of the people you'll be working with, and it's always nice to see a company's physical office space to help establish credibility.
It should come as no surprise that some companies will outsource some, most, or even all of their work to subcontractors here in the states, or overseas. That can lead to time-zone-related delays and language issues. There's also the workload problem: A subcontractor could be juggling multiple projects, and might not be available to work on yours in the way an employee would. When the work is done by company employees, there's a better chance they'll still be around when you need more work done a little ways down the road.
DIRECT ACCESS TO STAFF
If you're familiar with the game "telephone," you'll know that a message can get garbled if it's relayed through too many people - and sometimes, just one person in the middle can cause issues. It's best to work directly with the people who will be designing and developing your site, as opposed to talking to an account rep who will try to relay your thoughts.
EXPERIENCE - MARKETING
A person who learns how to use graphic design software, and learns how to build websites, might be able to create a nice-looking website. Without experience in the world of marketing, that website might not be as effective as it could be, and could even end up doing more harm than good. Best to work with someone who has as much experience in the world of marketing as possible.
EXPERIENCE - WEB
There are marketing firms out there who do a great job, but they specialize in something other than web design and development. If they're great at outdoor advertising, or promotional products, but they have almost no experience in online marketing, it's probably best to keep looking. Companies with significant experience with online marketing will know what works and what doesn't, giving your project the best chance of success.
EXPERIENCE - GRAPHICS
Have you ever been to a website and thought, "This looks like some nerd made it, ten years ago?" Some web developers are just that - developers, not designers. You probably wouldn't want the guy who does your drywall to draw the floorplan or pick out your window coverings. Be sure to ask about graphic design education, experience, and awards.
Understanding your wants and needs is important, but for marketing to be effective, it has to appeal to the target market. That's an important point that often goes ignored. Some companies will just want to make you happy, without thinking much (or at all) about the actual audience, or "end user." An experienced marketing company might have to push back against some of your ideas. You might hear something like, "I understand what you're asking, but in our experience, this is a more effective solution." Keep that in mind when meeting with a marketing company: are they just following your orders, or are they interested in working with you to develop an effective solution that will appeal to your customers?
Some projects end up stalling in the content phase. Writing can be difficult and time-consuming, and people are generally busy with other projects. Unless you already have copywriters and proofreaders on staff, it would be best to work with a marketing agency who can help craft compelling text content. Other content like photos, videos, icons, and infographics might all be on the list, too. Is all of that work going to be on your plate, or can your marketing agency help?
Website projects can get very complicated, and they're typically broken into at least a few phases. For example: strategy, wireframe, design, development, content addition, testing and launch. Before signing any contracts, make sure that you feel comfortable with the way the project is structured, and that the timeline for each phase works for you. Be sure to mention if you have any concerns, or any important dates like industry trade shows, etc.
Marketing agencies will typically ask for a deposit up front, sometimes one or more progress payments, and the final payment before your new site launches. Those payments may or may not be related to project milestones, or the completion or approval of various phases of the project. What types of payment methods do they accept, and are there any fees you should know about? Surprises in this department are best kept to a minimum.
Who will be the legal owner of the website, once it's completed? What if you decide you want to take the design that one company has created, and have another company make changes - will you have the legal right to do so? Chances are good that you will be the owner, but it's best to verify that ahead of time.
How are change requests handled? If you decide six months or a year down the road that you'd like to add, edit, or delete a few things, how will that be handled? If the people that built the site are the only ones that have access, that might be fine - but how is billing handled for changes? Will you be given access to a content management system where you can login and make changes yourself? What if you lost your password, forgot how, or are just too busy?