Justifying the price of a website

Published on November 09, 2010 under Customer Education

Stack of money

Probably the single-most debate and issue I'll see happen when I meet a potential client is the sticker-shock they get when I dictate my price.  I've seen plenty of professionals gawk at how much some designer/developer dared to ask for in exchange for their services, as well as designers/developers roll their eyes at how a client dared to think a website would cost a tiny amount.

The biggest question I get asked from potential clients is how much the site will cost.  I can't blame them either.  When it all comes down to it, you have to see how much a service will cost you as well as what you're getting for your money, yet the back-and-forth generally becomes a game of who spits out a number first.  Here's why.

A website isn't as simple to put together as a print piece.

I know when many want to make a flyer, brochure, publication ad, or even a sign, it's as easy as finding the talent you want and can afford, determining the cost of printing, coming up with the creative and message, and then going to print.  With a website, you're not just ending up with one easy item you plaster up someplace.  You're not coming up with an electronic brochure or even service that could be as simple as one web page to as complex as thousands of pages.  Plus unlike a print piece, you also have to think about how you go about getting people to come to that website.

I've had many jobs where I started off thinking this would be an easy walk in the park.  A nice layout, few pages built, launched, I get paid, and life goes on.  These jobs would end up taking months to a year to finish, and in the end I shot myself in the foot with setting up the deal to be one price, but ending up doing five to ten times the amount of work to get this up and running.

This is why most designers/developers want to work on an hourly basis.  This isn't some ploy to milk the client for more money, but to restrain the client from taking a mile for that inch we've given.  A website isn't as cut-and-dry as a print piece, and isn't finished as quickly.  We as interactive professionals need to pay our bills and eat, and thus while a print designer can start and finish a job in a short time frame so he/she can be paid and move on, our line of work takes longer, and thus we need to be compensated so we can give you, the client, our attention while surviving.

Never walk into negotiation without a budget.

This is where the client needs to do their homework.  Many simply have the idea of "I want a website", but never think about really what it entails or what it costs.  They then want to just hire someone and toss money at the idea in the hopes they get what they want.  The end result is usually a struggle and frustration.

When I meet a potential client and they ask me about my pricing, I simply ask them "What's your budget?" or "What are you looking to spend?"  I do this as a means to feel them out so I can even see if the client is worth my time.  Not trying to be a snob, but if I hear a reply of $500 for a full shopping-cart store site, then I know this person doesn't have much money to begin with, isn't serious, and might not even pay me in the end. Plus I generally like to cater my service to what they can afford, so both sides end up equitable.

So you might sit there not having any clue what a website might cost.  Thankfully you have me to give you ideas of what you need to have in mind:

Hosting: The regular expense of having a website on the internet is hosting.  That's where you put the web pages, images, sounds, video clips, whatever you're showing to the world that you wan them to see.  You cannot have a website without hosting.  I've had a few ask me if they could somehow connect things up with their computer, and while it is feasible, it's not practical.

Hosting generally will run you as little as $4 a month to as high as $50 a month in most cases.  This is just for the usual regular kind of hosting that you can build almost any website on.  There are much more expensive forms of hosting for those requiring special needs, which I'll get into later.

Domain Name: This is your actual web address.  The users put in to find your website.  While you can purchase this at the same time and place you get your website, it is a separate expense, generally $8 to $30 a year depending on what you get.  Some of those special domain suffixes are a little more expensive than the others.

As an added extra, I still recommend people do not get their domain name at the same place as you get your hosting.  The reason is when you move hosts (as many do); it will make things vastly easier to change where those domains go.  You can basically avoid the red tape and monetary costs of transferring the domains.

Scale/Scope of the site: This is the big one because it will dictate how much labor time and skills/experience you will need.  This is where the client needs to sit and think about what they want to go online and what functions they want this website to perform.  It could be as simple as just displaying some information and a link to email you, or as complicated as a social network or online store.

The big thinking is "what do I want?" and I'm not talking in terms of a layout, but just in terms of the final product.  Many bigger companies will pay strategy experts just to determine this.  If you're a smaller business, then simply take it as making a list of every possible page you want, and every function you desire.  Your goal is to not sit down at the table, make a deal, and then suddenly go into debate later when you want more added pages and functions.

Let's use this site as an example.  If I had been hiring a designer/developer to design and build it, I'd simply ask for a home page, about page, a section to show my work, a blog, and a means to contact me.  I'd also tell the designer/developer that I'd want a unique design and not just some typical template blog site design.

From there, the designer/developer would hand me a range of prices and possibilities.  So if I were the designer/developer, I'd toss out these possibilities:

  1. A fully loaded custom-coded web site like the one you're on now.  I'd ask for roughly $3000-$6000 for it, and simply describe it as a site where you can change the content though a back-end admin system, as well as a design that isn't like other web sites, and a custom-built blog software for the blog system.  Plus it will have added features to make it search-engine friendly.
  2. A web site with a unique layout and some or no dynamic functions, thus you would have to change some or all content areas the old-fashioned way with HTML code and FTP upload.  The blog I'd set up on a separate system with the typical blog site layout and connect the two together.  For this I'd ask for $1000-$3000.
  3. A simpler site made with a 3rd-party setup like Wordpress.  The look and feel wouldn't be too unique, and I'd insist I'd simply skin the site based on current Wordpress themes (in terms of where things sit on the page), but keep it branded to your company. Any added features would have to only be if there is a plug-in made for it.  So I'd simply install Wordpress, add in any plugins you need, skin it, and call it a day. For this I'd charge anywhere from $500-$1500.

So now you're probably wondering why site A is so expensive and site C so inexpensive.  In my world, it's simply about time and ease.  Skinning a Wordpress site within the typical context of their themes isn't a lot of work, and thus you as a client can save a lot of money.  If a designer/developer tries to charge you thousands for a skin that's really nothing more than a tweaked version of a ready-made theme, then you're being conned.

Site B is more or less a go-between.  So rather than have a fully set-up site that I simply have to "decorate", this is where I make that unique layout and code it to the best of my knowledge and wisdom.  Site B can also be built to fit most screen resolutions or just one, but the price goes up in that range for the multiple.  What keeps it costing less than Site C is because I don't have to build some massive back-end system so you can change content without knowing how to do code.

Bear in mind this is all if you were to email me right now and hand me your scope, I might not give you these numbers.  This however is why you should walk into the discussion with an idea of what you want on your web site.  If you really don't know, then ask the designer/developer.  We're always happy to talk of what you might or might not need.  I would suggest though if you are clueless, talk to a few people.  Half my clients now are people I believe were scammed because they didn't know.  I'd rather be honest and gain more business down the road because of my honesty. Like you do with doctors, ask for a second opinion.

Added technology costs money.

Not every web site is going to be a simple blog or brochure.  Many people want to be able to sell merchandise, services, or even have the means to do customer service online.  It could be the simple store selling items, or a digital store selling files, or even a more complicated store selling custom-made items that the user can put together right there. Let's not even forget a means to accept credit card payments online.

This factor isn't only ecommerce.  It could just be a big Flash-animated site with loads of video and audio, or a doctor's site that allows users to make appointments.  Regardless, things like this will cost you extra money.  Even the sites I showed above are neither Flash sites nor ecommerce sites.  If you're looking for added extras like that, then take into account they will cost more.  Even looking back at hosting, there are specialized services that charge hundreds to thousands per month to host and run specialized web systems for businesses that have special needs.  I know many doctors and real estate professionals will go to these specialized services because they need those back-end systems for features like appointment management or MLS listings.

Time is money.

You've heard that before, and I'm sure you've stated it on occasion.  For a designer/developer, time is very much money, and the more time we think a job is going to take, the more money we are going to ask for.  I'm sure you would do the same if one were to ask you to do a job for payment.

I mention this though because when you're planning out your site and even negotiating with a designer/developer, you need to take this in account.  You might desire to have a web site up and running in a week, but then wonder why this designer/developer is asking for an exorbitant amount of money.  It takes time.

You also have to think in terms of time when you are having the layout and design made.  Biggest thing I've seen that makes a small inexpensive job into an expensive long job is indecisiveness and changing the scope on impulse.  So when you are in the "I don't know what I want" or the "I'll know what I want when I see it" mentality of getting the design together, bear in mind each iteration of changes might cost you more money.  We as designers can't afford to spend months coming up with a design when the job was supposed to last a few weeks.

The way you get around this is simply to do your homework.  Get on the internet and look around.  Look at web sites you like, and web sites of your competition.  Look at the features and functions you see them doing and what you like about them.  List these things, as well as colors, layouts, looks, and feels you like.  Believe me, this helps a LOT and can save you money and time.  I know a gig is much easier when I meet a client who knows what they want and makes it clear to me.

The more you schedule, stick to the schedule, and stay realistic on that schedule, the better and more smoother a site can be designed and built.  The rationale for us as designers/developers is we can finish your task, make you happy, and then move on to the next moneymaking job.

Maintenance and added services

This is another one to think about, because many clients will want the site built and then assume I'll be fixing it up every month for free.  Would you do that?

This is why I push dynamic sites and try to sell clients on easy-to-operate sites that they can maintain themselves.  Granted you see a larger price tag on the build, but in the long run you save a lot of money.  Don't be afraid to ask about or even reject some designers/developers who won't give you a dynamic back end at the higher prices.  Your web site doesn't end at the build.

On top of maintenance, added services like social media marketing and other search engine pushes are not always included. Granted a designer/developer should be thinking SEO (Search Engine Optimization) from the start, I'll always ask a client how important SEO is to them. This will dictate to me how much I can do in the design. Regardless, something like decorating a Twitter page or creating a Facebook app isn't just part of the package unless you agree on it beforehand. Never assume...ask.

Ask questions.

If a designer/developer isn't willing to answer questions, then he/she shouldn't be in this business.  I'm always more than happy to answer questions on how much a site should cost as well as explain technical terms in laymen's language.

So I invite you to ask here or via email.

Tags: website, development, price, business

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