Someone once told me that a good sales opener is: “What can I help you with?” Force the prospect to tell you what they need.
While pretty good advice, the problem when selling digital services is that a lot of people have only a vague idea of their problem. They have no idea what specific solution they’re looking for. Most people don’t even know the available options. And this is not meant to be condescending — as I’ll explain, this stuff can be complicated, and it’s our job to know the options, not theirs.
When someone gets in touch and says they need to “re-do their website,” the first task is to figure out exactly what they’re asking for. Only then can you build a scope around which set of skills you need to bring for the project.
Figuring this out can sometimes take a surprising amount of time, and it’s not unheard of to get pretty far down the road towards scoping a solution only to find out they really wanted something different. A digital presence is multi-faceted, and the basic idea of “we need to re-do our website” can be sliced-and-diced a couple of dozen different ways.
At its most basic level, a website is a three-legged stool. It provides value through a combination of:
- Content: these are the words, images, and other media contained within the website. It includes both the content itself, and how it’s organized. It also includes functional aspects that provide value to the user (a mortgage calculator, for example).
- Design: this is how the content is visually or experientially presented to the user, including the interface elements, layout, color palette, and user flow — how the user navigates through the content.
- Technology: this is underlying technical platform of the website — the content management system (CMS) or other programming platform which powers it.
Again, those are the absolute basics. Every single website — whether it’s aware of the distinctions or not — has some combination of content, design, and technology. (“But I don’t even have a CMS!,” you cry. That doesn’t matter — static HTML is still a technology.)
At a bit higher level, there are three other aspects which may or may not exist for your particular website:
- Experience: this is the entire experience of interacting with all of your company’s digital channels, including your website, your social media platforms, your email strategy, and how they all interact together.
- Inbound Marketing: this is how people find out about your organization and get to your website or other digital channels to experience any of the above.
- Governance: this is how all the members of the digital team work together to deliver all of the above.
When you contact a web development company to discuss a project, you’re invariably talking about one or more of the above aspects which combine in various ways to reveal the actual skill set and type of project you’re looking for.
The factors listed above manifest themselves in different skills which go by different names:
- If you just want your website to look better, and are happy with your content and your CMS, then you’re asking for a design refresh or a re-templating.
- If your website has rendering or browser execution problems or is non-responsive, you might need a design implementation project to re-work the HTML/CSS.
- If the visuals are good, but the layout is confusing and doesn’t highlight the content you want, then this can be solved with a user interaction/experience (UX) project.
- If you think your website is ineffective from a content standpoint, then this is a content strategy project. More specifically: if you like the content itself, but want it reorganized, then this is a problem of information architecture; if you think it’s organized well, but sounds amateurish, then this would be copywriting or content production.
- If your website looks good to the public but you hate your CMS, then you’re asking for a CMS implementation project. If you know you need this, but don’t know what CMS is a good fit, then this is a CMS selection project. Eventually, you need to get content from one CMS to another, and this is content migration. Getting your staff comfortable with the new system is training.
- If you have functionality that has nothing to do with a CMS and is specific to your situation alone, then this is custom programming or even full application development.
- If you have content in different systems and you need to find a way to make them all work together, then content management strategy can help you develop a plan, and the technical work would fall under content integration.
- To figure out the best way to manage the continued development of your website, you might need help with development operations.
- To plan an optimal hosting environment and launch strategy, you need deployment consulting, and you might want a managed hosting engagement to keep the site running.
- If you like your website, but just want to drive more traffic, then perhaps you need a search engine marketing, social media marketing, or digital advertising campaign.
- If you have nothing but a haphazard, accidental relationship with Facebook and Instagram and want those channels to more closely align with a larger plan, then you need a social media strategy.
- If it takes you too long to create new content and you feel like your team is working against itself sometimes, then you have an editorial workflow project, which is a form of business process improvement.
- If you need to offload the basic tasks of managing content altogether, then this is content operations.
- If you don’t think the organization takes digital seriously or there are competing agendas at the executive level, perhaps you need over-arching digital strategy consulting or governance consulting.
Your project might be any one or more of the above. In our 12 years, we’ve probably seen every possible combination. Some of our relationships are approaching 10 years, and it’s highly likely we’ve touched almost every one of the above disciplines for the same client, in some cases.
We see a lot of “full stack” project requests. When a client wants to pave their website and start over, that usually means these skills, in rough order:
- Content and digital strategy
- Information architecture
- User interaction
- Design refresh
- CMS implementation
- Content migration
- Managed hosting
The execution of these skills might not be project-based. In some cases, you have a long-running relationship with a firm, perhaps even on a retainer (monthly fee) basis, and the firm might do a little work involving a dozen different skills in the same month. Sometimes you buy a pool of hours and offload entire responsibilities to the firm. They exercise the skills they need to hit the goal or work targets you’ve dictated as part of the agreement.
Not all firms do all things. For example, at Blend, we don’t do marketing or social media strategy (those might be #8 and #9 on the above list). If you need a Google Adwords campaign, that’s not us — we have partners that do that, but it’s not something we do in-house.
There are other things that we might only do as a component of a larger project. Governance consulting, for instance, is often a part of a CMS implementation, but we don’t normally do standalone governance projects. We rarely do standalone CMS training projects (and even then only in the form of developer training and consulting), and we don’t do hosting, dev ops, or deployment planning on solutions we didn’t develop.
Some “digital agencies” will claim to do everything, at varying degrees of effectiveness. Some agencies are no-doubt large enough to have significant business units that do all of it at a very high level.
Firms that do everything will still likely have an emphasis. A lot of digital marketing firms will approach projects from that direction — they might do a smaller technical implementation, and concentrate on the monthly marketing activities. They might even outsource the build (to a firm like mine, oftentimes). Content and digital strategy firms will sometimes help you set the master course, then bring in subcontractors and manage them to deliver the final product.
In the end, firms will find ways to perform non-core skills in order to realize business from their core skills. Very rarely will a firm simply say, “We don’t do that.” That sentence usually ends with, “…but, we know someone who can” or “…here’s why we don’t think you need that.”
So, before you contact a digital firm, try asking yourself these questions:
- Do I like how my website looks?
- Do I like the content in my website?
- Do I like working with the management system (CMS) of the website?
- Do I think that my website makes sense to my visitors and that they can consume my content easily?
- Does my website get enough traffic?
- Do I feel comfortable with my activity in all the other channels outside my website (social media, email, etc.)?
- Does my team work effectively?
- Do we have a basic digital strategy?
- Does the leadership of my organization support the digital strategy?
The answers to those questions will get you considerably closer to defining the true scope of the project you’re looking for.
Next Steps —
- Read my first book: Web Content Management: Systems, Features, and Best Practices
- Subscribe to updates from my next book: The Web Project Guide
- Subscribe to my twice-monthly newsletter about CMS: Squirrel Notes
- Follow me on Twitter, where I announce new posts: @gadgetopia
- Send me an email — I'd love to talk: email@example.com