How to Hire a Web Agency

I recently helped a friend hire an agency to build her website. It made me think about the process of hiring a web agency from the Client perspective. Here’s what I learned from the questions she asked and the advice I gave:

Before you approach a web agency, ask yourself the big question “Why”.

Why am I Doing this Project?

It’s a good idea to put together a project scoping document to map out your needs. The main question you’re answering here is ‘why’. As in, why do you need a website? What’s the business case for this project? Along with this, you can include a write-up of new features that you need, a description of the rebranding you’d like to do, or simple statements about what you want your users to be able to do. I’ve seen everything from a two pager listing high level goals to a 200-page specs document outlining business processes and workflows. The first might miss a lot of valuable background about your organization, the second is probably too prescriptive and you’ll lose out on the strategic insights of potential vendors. You want something in between. They key is to communicate what you want to accomplish and specific requirements that you have.

Good things to include:

  • What kind of users you have? Who are your main target audiences?
  • What do you know that the website needs to do or what content it absolutely has to have? What are you trying to accomplish?
  • What do your clients need to be able to do with the website/app?
  • Who’s going to update the content and maintain the site?
  • Are there other systems the website/app will need to talk to?
  • What’s your timeline? What’s your budget?

Next step, create a list of possible vendors. For example, what companies are offering the right set of services and have experience working with clients in healthcare and technology? Which companies have the right design aesthetic and can provide all the deliverables you need? If you need content writing and marketing services too, look for an agency that offers that. Ask for recommendations!

As a healthcare startup with a small marketing team, my friend wanted a company to handle the design, some copywriting, as well as the build of the site. You might be looking for a company that can build some customized functionality which requires more experienced developers. Larger companies that offer more services might come with higher price tags. So she wanted to balance her requirements with a team that could work within her budget.

Why Do I Need a Budget?

It’s important to have a budget in mind when starting your project. If you tell vendors your approximate budget, they’ll be able to come up with a set of services and an outcome that fits in that budget. There are so many different levels of service that without a budget estimate, it’s hard to know what to offer.

After I helped her narrow down a vendor list, it was time to make contact. She got in touch with each of the vendors on her list and set up a phone call.

The phone call is the time to figure out: is this the right fit? Does the vendor understand your business case? Are they asking good questions to figure out the scope of the project? What’s their process? What services are they going to include? Are they trying to understand your business case?

From there, you’re going to want to ask for proposals. If your project is simple and your use cases are standard, your vendor might be able to write up an estimate for the whole project on the spot. Or they might suggest a discovery phase to figure out the requirements first.

Why do we Need a Discovery Phase?

A good discovery phase is there to help you get the most out of your project budget. You want to make sure that there’s some kind of strategy behind what you’re doing and that the website or app that you’re building fits into this strategy. This is what the discovery phase is all about. It’s to figure out what you need, what your priorities are, and how that should feed into the web project at hand.

For smaller, well-defined projects or projects where you’ve already invested time into figuring this out, you can present a strategy to a web agency that they can start with.

How do I Choose a Vendor?

After you’ve talked to your vendors and collected their proposals, it’s time to make a decision. Which vendor should you go with?

The key here is to choose a vendor that understands your “Why”, that offers the services you need, that can provide a solution that fits in your timeline and budget, and that seems to have a good cultural fit with your organization.

I helped my friend go through her list of potential vendors. She was able to rule out one or two because the technology they wanted to use wasn’t going to scale to her needs in the future. One company had a quote outside her budget and wasn’t able to create the entire site with the budget she had. A fourth very promising option wanted her to provide all the content for the site.

Responsibilities: Who Does What?

If you’re hiring a vendor to build you a website or app, the build is typically their responsibility. But what about the other work that goes into the project?

Content: It’s pretty common for web agencies to ask clients for content. After all, the client is the content expert in their domain. However, content strategy is an increasingly important aspect of websites. You might want help to create a content strategy, so that the structure, style, and organization of your content works for your user, and that you strike the right balance between what your users want to hear and what you want to tell them. This is often an area of close collaboration between vendor and client, with the vendor gathering information about audiences, making suggestions about content structure, and often writing content samples or drafts for key marketing texts to make sure that the copy on the site is optimized for web.

It’s also pretty common for vendors to source images or provide image specs for the client to get from a photo shoot.

Branding: branding is not web-specific and a lot of web agencies don’t do branding. Often a company wants a new website but doesn’t want to recreate their brand from scratch. That being said, it’s fair to expect a web agency to translate your brand to web, to create a new digital language that you can use on your website and in other digital materials. And if you have a weak brand and need to enhance it, a web redesign might be a good time to do that, just make sure you ask for it!

Maintenance: it’s 2019 so you should be able to maintain the content of your website using a content management system. That being said, every site will have other updates and maintenance work and it’s important to put that in your budget. Ask about who is going to maintain the site and figure out if you want to take that on yourself or get your web agency to do it for you.

I Still Don’t Know What To Do!

You’ve reached the end of a long article and maybe you’re still scratching your head wondering how to hire a web agency.

To sum it up, the reason you hire a web agency is that you need to bring in experts to fill your knowledge gaps. This makes it hard to select the best vendor, because you might not feel qualified to choose. It’s like hiring a technical expert when you’re not a technical expert.

That’s why you should focus on communicating what you’re trying to achieve, and then listening to the vendor to make sure they understand it, and know how to take your ideas and make them happen. Make sure you’re on the same page about the big stuff (budget, timeline, who does what) from day one.

If you want to know about our process and what types of projects we’re good at, give us a call!

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